By Roland S. Martin
When Spanish-language network Univision blasted the Presidential Debate Commission for their glaring lack of ethnic diversity among the four presidential and vice presidential debate moderators, champions of diversity applauded their willingness to challenge the status quo.
In many ways, Univision was echoing the famous words spoken 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 having a woman moderate a presidential debate for the first time in 20 years — CNN’s Candy Crowley — is long overdue (ABC’s Martha Raddatz will helm the vice presidential debate). But with this nation quickly becoming a majority-minority country, the perspective, background and interests of those asking the questions is seriously important.
It’s great that as a result of Univision making their critique, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will participate individually in an issues forum hosted by the network’s anchors, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas.
To all of the haters who are seething right now, readying their emails and 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 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 referencing media that targets demographics other than white, you’ll hear the phrase “ethnic media.” For newspapers targeting African-Americans, the phrase the “black press” has historically been used.
What we have to come to grips with is the reality that the people asking the questions — what their background is, where they grew up, what their experiences were and are — play a crucial role in what is asked.
If you take someone who grew up in a nearly all-white environment in a suburban community, and their adulthood has meant living in similar surroundings, their outlook on life and the issues won’t be the same as someone who grew up in a nearly all-white rural environment. The education, health and economic concerns will likely be drastically different, and that informs their outlook.
The same goes for someone who is African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian or Native American. Our ethnicity shouldn’t be divisive; our diversity is what makes us unique and different, 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” that work for major media companies. But the truth of the matter is the notion that what is important in Washington, D.C. and New York is just as prevalent in conservative outlets based in those cities. For years I’ve felt out of place as a native Texan within these media circles because how I view the issues is different from those deciding what are the top news of the day. Add on the fact that I’m African-American, and trust me, my outlook varies greatly from a lot of bookers, producers, executive producers, hosts, editorial opinion page editors and national political correspondents. My background plays a role in the way in which I view the world, and that comes across based on the issues I choose to highlight and discuss.
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 Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post or any other New York papers. Why? Because those are the daily papers read by most folks in the media, so why do I want to reinforce the narrative that what those papers focus on is what’s important? I’ll choose to grab something in The Detroit News, Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, Charlotte Observer or the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in order 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 just 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 speak about our nation’s prisons being filled with millions of people and why blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate number? 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 between whites, blacks and Hispanics?
Sorry to say, if your questioners are all white, most, if not all, of these questions won’t be on an index card in front of the moderators.
I don’t want to hear a presidential or vice-presidential candidate’s favorite TV show, food, hobby, or most embarrassing thing they’ve done in life. Such silly questions should be barred forever.
But we can have debates in this country that are not just substantive but also culturally relevant. The point isn’t about a “gotcha” question or trying to catch 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, 300 million people that are made up of individuals with different hues, shapes and perspectives.
Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.” Please visit his website at RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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