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Panelists Debate Election Coverage Before Candidates Debate Issues

Emerson Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence Carole Simpson said if she were moderating the first 2016 presidential debate, she would ask Republican Donald Trump why he hasn’t released his tax returns.

That’s what she told a room full of Emerson students at a debate watch co-sponsored by the Journalism and Communication Studies departments; Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA); the Communications, Politics, and Law Association (CPLA); and the Emerson College Polling Society on Monday, September 26. The sponsoring organizations have planned events for all of the upcoming presidential debates.

“The media would love that,” Bill McCarthy, Trump’s regional campaign field coordinator, said in response to Simpson’s remark about the tax returns. “Isn’t that a private thing?”

Simpson appeared on a panel Monday night with McCarthy and former Clinton administration communication strategist Fred Baldassaro ’96 to introduce the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton to the fiery crowd.

The former ABC News anchor knows a thing or two about debate moderation. Twenty-four years ago, she became the first woman and the first person of color to moderate a presidential debate when George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot faced off in South Carolina in 1992.

“My job as the moderator was to make sure the people had their questions answered,” Simpson recalled. “Here I am, this black woman, trying to control these three men that are seeking the highest office in the world. I was afraid I had to represent women—I had to show them a woman could handle the job just like a man—and I had to represent all the black people in America and have them see a person of color could do this.”

Respect for Simpson’s accomplishments crossed party lines in the panel preceding the viewing of the debate. McCarthy praised her insight as one of the most important takeaways students could get from the panel discussion.

“I remember when she was the moderator,” he said, “and to have her explain to us what she did in preparation and that she wanted to make sure she did a good job, not only for herself and her career, but all the people that she felt she represented, that was key. That was really nice that she was able to share that with the students. That was a big deal.”

He also had a message to all of the new voters in the room, since this will be the first presidential election in which nearly all current undergraduate students at Emerson will be eligible to vote.

“Just get as much information as you can,” he said. “Whoever is closest to what you believe and what you think is important, I say go with that person. Politics is a very personal endeavor.”

These words of advice came after a harsh scrutiny of mainstream media coverage of the debates by the panelists.

“I have been embarrassed at how the press has covered this election,” Simpson said. She criticized the media’s desire for ratings over delivering newsworthy facts to the public.

McCarthy highlighted the significant power the press holds in politics and the responsibility journalists have in politics.

“I think it’s very important that [the candidates] share their ideas with the press,” he said. “Everyone wants to hear something. We’re all looking for someone to lead, and if the media can take the lead, I think it would help everyone.”

The panelists fielded students’ questions about details on each candidate’s policies, campaign communication strategies, and how media pundits decide who “wins” a debate.

“You win the debate in the first thirty minutes,” Baldassaro said, “but you can lose the debate at any time.”

After the panel discussion and debate viewing came to an end, CPLA e-board member Isabel Macomber ’17 reflected on what she hoped students got out of their attendance of the debate watch event.

“I really hope people came in with an open mind,” she said, “and not just Journalism majors or Poli Comm majors. I really hope people from all over the College are coming out and trying to engage in politics with their peers. I think it’s a huge part of university life and developing your voice at school, and I hope that people feel Emerson gives them ample opportunity.”

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