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Activists see NBC’s Democratic debate moderators as a win for representation

Four of the five moderators that have been announced are women or people of color.

TIME 100 Gala 2019 - Red Carpet
Lester Holt attends the TIME 100 Gala Red Carpet at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 23, 2019 in New York City.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TIME
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

NBC on Tuesday announced the five anchors who will be moderating the first Democratic primary debates in June. They are Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Rachel Maddow, Jose Diaz-Balart, and Chuck Todd. Four of the five are women or people of color, and it’s a dynamic that activists are cheering.

Given how historically white and male this space has been, greater diversity among moderators on the debate stage is a priority advocacy groups including NARAL, Emily’s List, and Color of Change pushed for earlier this year.

In an open letter this spring, the groups urged media outlets and other organizations to ensure that at least 50 percent of the moderators running the debates would be women and at least 50 percent would be people of color. UltraViolet Action, an organization dedicated to gender equity, spearheaded the letter, which also called out sexism in political media coverage writ large.

The group applauded the NBC lineup and urged other media outlets to follow suit.

“NBC’s decision to ensure that four out of the five moderators for the first Democratic presidential primary debate are women or people of color is a huge win for representation at the debates and a welcome change from the status quo,” said UltraViolet’s executive director Shaunna Thomas. “Our country has seen what happens as a result of unfair media coverage of presidential candidates — and this cannot be the reality in 2020.”

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee echoed this sentiment, adding, “We hope this team will elevate the voices of voters and ask the questions that matter most, like Medicare for All, universal child care, a Green New Deal, and other issues important to working families.”

The push for more diverse moderators is part of a larger movement to make media coverage more inclusive overall

The question about moderators and representation is just one of many that have emerged regarding the media’s coverage of the most diverse field of candidates that Democrats have ever seen.

Already, there have been blatant instances of double standards, including pieces questioning women candidates’ “likeability,” and other stories treating minor gaffes by women candidates as major missteps. As the organizations note in their letter, coverage of women candidates has often trended more negative and tends to focus less on their concrete achievements.

“When the media does focus on women candidates, there is often a default to sexist tropes about women in leadership or a lack of focus on the substantive backgrounds and policies of the women candidates,” the groups wrote.

In that letter, the organizations indicated that their push on moderators came in the wake of a string of town halls hosted by CNN that were led exclusively by male reporters. “It was unacceptable that the recent New Hampshire Town Halls hosted by CNN on April 22 featured three male moderators but no women moderators,” they wrote.

UltraViolet Action has also previously called on candidates to take the #AskForWomen pledge and only attend debates that include women moderators, an effort that’s been backed by the likes of Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

“As the Republican Party works methodically to take away women’s basic human rights, it’s more important than ever that Democrats require that women moderators be present and empowered to hold all candidates accountable on our positions,” Gillibrand said in a statement.

In the wake of this effort, the Democratic National Committee announced in May that it would require at least one woman and at least one person of color as a moderator at every debate, Refinery29 reported.

Tuesday’s announcement shows that energized Democratic activists can be successful in improving representation, and the response they’ve garnered suggests they will continue to push for change across the board.