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Latino journalists group sees glaring omission among presidential debate moderators

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and moderator Lester Holt at the first presidential debate in 2016.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images )

The head of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists sent a harsh message to the Commission on Presidential Debates regarding the lack of a Latino moderator in the upcoming sanctioned face-offs between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

NAHJ President Hugo Balta said in a video posted Wednesday night that the commission that sanctions the debates — expected to be watched by as many as 80 million TV viewers — is perpetuating the “erasure” of Latinos by failing to represent them in the moderator choices announced earlier that day.

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“Three white co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates have once again denied Hispanics and Latinos a seat at the table approaching election 2020,” Balta said. “It is preposterous to look at the state of our country and increasingly polarized communities across the nation and not be left to wonder how is it possible that our community remains excluded? When the people in the positions who sincerely inform 32 million eligible voters do not fulfill their responsibility, it is not a question to us as to why Latinos’ civic engagement ... is low each election year.”

The moderators announced for the debates are two white men, Chris Wallace of Fox News and Steve Scully of C-SPAN, and two women, Susan Page of USA Today and Kristen Welker of NBC News, who is Black. The first debate will be held Sept. 29 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Fox’s Chris Wallace, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, NBC’s Kristen Welker and USA Today’s Susan Page to moderate presidential and vice presidential debates.

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The commission, a nonprofit body that has organized the presidential debates since 1987, did not respond to a request for comment on Balta’s remarks.

The NAHJ has about 2,300 members, made up of working Latino journalists and journalism students.

Balta said the lack of Latino representation is particularly glaring in a campaign where one of the major issues — the COVID-19 pandemic — disproportionately affects underprivileged portions of the population.

There is no shortage of qualified Latino anchors who could have served as debate moderators, said one network correspondent who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity.

Jose Diaz-Balart, a bilingual anchor who works at NBC News and Telemundo; Tom Llamas and Cecilia Vega, weekend anchors for “ABC World News Tonight”; Lulu Garcia-Navarro of NPR; and Ed O’Keefe, a political correspondent for CBS News, are among the Latino journalists who have been immersed in coverage of the 2020 White House race.

Network news executives are tight-lipped about their discussions with the commission, but an executive with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be named said at least one of those names was suggested for the debates.

It’s not the first time the debate commission has faced criticism over its selection of moderators.

In an open letter to the commission in 2016, Randy Falco, then president and chief executive of Univision, conveyed his “disappointment” and “disbelief” that the commission did not select a Latino journalist to moderate one of the debates, according to a report in CNN.

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Falco welcomed the addition of CBS’ Elaine Quijano, who is of Filipino descent, who moderated the vice presidential debate in the last election. But he said it was “insufficient when taking into account past presidential cycles, future demographic trends and the important role Latinos play in the economic and social fabric of this great nation. Simply put: it’s an abdication of your responsibility to represent and reflect one of the largest and most influential communities in the U.S.”


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