Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A debate moderator's ethnicity matters

By Roland Martin, CNN Contributor
August 28, 2012 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
Lecturns await GOP candidates in January. Roland Martin says debate moderators should come from diverse backgrounds.
Lecturns await GOP candidates in January. Roland Martin says debate moderators should come from diverse backgrounds.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spanish-language Univision blasted lack of diversity among debate moderators
  • Martin: Ethnic diversity is important because what is asked depends on who asks it
  • Martin says as a black, native Texan, his concerns differ from mainstream white media's
  • We need new questions about the poor, prisons, other issues that never crop up, he says

Editor's note: Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for the TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- When Spanish-language network Univision blasted the Commission on Presidential Debates for its glaring lack of ethnic diversity among the four presidential and vice presidential debate moderators, champions of diversity applauded the network's willingness to challenge the status quo.

In many ways, Univision was echoing the famous words written in the first edition of the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, founded by John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish in 1827: "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us."

There is no doubt that choosing a woman to moderate a presidential debate for the first time in 20 years -- CNN's Candy Crowley -- is long overdue. But with this nation quickly becoming a majority-minority country, the perspective, background and interests of those asking the questions is seriously important.

Part of the diversity problem with the presidential moderators also stems from the lack of diversity in the media, especially in the power positions of executives, show hosts and executive producers. And our nation's media is quick to examine another industry's shortcomings and pay only lip service to its own.

It's great that after Univision's critique, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney decided to participate individually in an issues forum hosted by the network's anchors, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas.

Roland Martin
Roland Martin

To all of the haters who are seething right now -- readying their e-mails and composing comments such as "Why can't we all just be Americans?" and "You're race-baiting with this column" -- please, pipe down and listen for a change, to understand the nuances of this issue.

In the media, whenever we say "mainstream," we might as well be honest and admit that means white. I have heard cable and broadcast executives speak in those terms for years, and trust me, when they are thinking about the dominant audience, it means white. That's why when anyone is talking about media that targets demographics other than white, you'll hear the phrase "ethnic media." For newspapers targeting African Americans, you'll hear "the black press."

What we have to acknowledge is that the moderator's background, upbringing, experiences and where he or she grew up, all play a crucial role in what questions are asked.

Kids' petition helped Crowley get debate
Kids' petition helped Crowley get debate

If you take people who grew up in a nearly all-white environment in the suburbs and they have spent their adulthood in similar surroundings, their outlook on life and the issues won't be the same as those who grew up in a nearly all-white rural environment. Their education, health and economic concerns likely will be drastically different.

The same goes for someone is African American, Hispanic-Latino, Asian or Native American. Our ethnicity shouldn't be divisive; our diversity is what makes us unique, and that means embracing it.

That ethnic and regional perspective is also important in other ways.

For instance, conservatives always lament the "East Coast liberals" who work for major media companies. But the truth is that the notion of what's important in Washington and New York is much the same in conservative outlets as it is in liberal outlets in those cities.

For years, I've felt out of place as a native Texan within these media circles. How I view the issues is different from who decides the top news of the day in places such as New York or Washington. Add on that I'm African-American, and my outlook varies a great deal from a lot of TV newsbookers, producers, executive producers, hosts, editorial opinion page editors and national political correspondents. My background plays a role in the way I view the world, and that comes across based on the issues I choose to highlight and discuss.

For example, when I'm on CNN's "Starting Point With Soledad O'Brien," and we're choosing a story of the day in the newspaper, I purposely don't choose anything from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or any New York papers. Why? Because those are the daily papers read by most folks in the media. Why do I want to reinforce the narrative that those papers decide what's most important?

I'll choose to grab something in The Detroit News, Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, The Charlotte Observer, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) or websites, magazines and blogs produced for ethnic audiences to spread the love and expand the universe of what is news.

These debates should be the same. There should be ethnic and gender diversity among the moderators. Who they are and the questions they ask should be broad in scope, but also specific to various groups that make up the United States of America. Let's stop asking questions only about the middle class or the nation's rich. Can someone actually mention the poor in this country, which is made of up people of all ethnic groups?

Can we hear the candidates talk about why the United States has more prisoners than any other nation in the world and why blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate number of them? Is racial profiling too provocative to be put on the table? Is the education achievement gap too toxic to bring up? How about health disparities between rural and city folk, and whites, blacks and Hispanics?

Sorry to say, if your questioners are all white, most of these questions won't be on their index cards.

I don't want to hear a presidential or vice-presidential candidate's favorite TV show, food, hobby or most embarrassing thing they've ever done. Such silly questions should be barred forever.

But we can have debates that are not just substantive, but culturally relevant. The point isn't about a gotcha question or trying to get someone to slip up. It's simply recognizing that the next president and vice president of the United States will represent one nation, 50 states and 300 million people of many hues, shapes and perspectives.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT