Hey NBC, Monday’s Debate Panelists Need to Better Represent!

jose antonio vargas

“Jose Antonio Vargas Speaks” Photo by Campus Progress

On Monday night, January 23rd, NBC will host the 18th candidate debate of this Republican primary season. It will be moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, and include panelists Adam C. Smith of the Tampa Bay Times and Beth Reinhard of National Journal.

Presumably these panelists have the journalistic skills to interrogate convincingly, even entertainingly, considering Williams’ comic flair. But while they promise to be well-prepared after ferreting through ample campaign notes and candidate bios, once all is said and done, they will still lack key elements to do the best job; key elements here being the right demographics. To put it bluntly, just like the candidates they are questioning, these panelists represent the privileged white majority.

And for this American, after all the insensitivity and prejudices these candidates have shown – that demographic – my own demographic – just doesn’t work.

Throughout much of this already tawdry campaign, these candidates have insulted each other. But no matter how many insults they land, these men of privilege are never the victims. The true victims are those Americans who are not physically onstage at debates; those fitting the demographics these candidates have belittled and assailed from the start. Blacks, lesbians, gays, immigrants and women. The poor, the hungry, the ill, the working class and the middle class are who these candidates seek to criminalize and deprive – which is why a representative panel is needed.

In last Monday’s South Carolina Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate (#16 for those who are counting), Fox News panelist Juan Williams, a black man, took what many consider a racial flogging from Newt Gingrich, which upset civil rights proponents, but thrilled the white audience in attendance. The time has come for another black panelist to step up where Juan Williams left off. Though panelists aren’t present as debaters, they’re not present as whipping “boys” either.

Egregiously, Newt Gingrich isn’t the only Republican candidate of the remaining four (Gingrich, Romney, Santorum, Paul) who’s been racially insensitive. Ron Paul has been criticized for numerous racist statements published in his earlier newsletters, outlined here by the Christian Science Monitor.

On the stump through South Carolina, touting the praises of segregationist Strom Thurman, Rick Santorum insinuated that a President Romney would be a “paler shade” of President Obama. And in an act some perceived as condescending, Mitt Romney gave fifty dollars to an unemployed black woman at a South Carolina campaign stop.

With actions ranging from blatant disdain for black Americans to perceived condescension, all four current GOP candidates have proved themselves unacceptable as President to black Americans – nearly 13% of the population.

Black Americans aren’t the only demographic under attack by these privileged white men. Immigrants, primarily hispanics, and their American children, are being assailed as criminals or lesser Americans. Lesbian and gay citizens are being vilified for seeking full equality, including military service and the right to marry. Women are being patronized by men who claim the right to legislate women’s bodies.

After seventeen debates, all led by journalists, who for the most part don’t represent the populations at-risk if any of these four are elected, isn’t it time to have a representative panel do the grilling?

I realize that in our “democratic” electoral process candidates aren’t mandated to appear at debates, and there is no guarantee they’ll appear if asked to face a field they perceive as unfriendly. But it’s still worth a try. I also realize there is no guarantee that the more representative panel will be more capable than the less representative panel, but again, it’s worth a try.

Thus, NBC, I would like to offer substitutes for Mr. Williams, Mr. Smith and Ms. Reinhard for Monday’s Florida debate. For the sake of consistency, I’ll make them all journalists. And for greater ease, I’ll make two your own employees.

To begin with, I suggest Melissa Harris Perry, contributor to The Nation and soon to be host on MSNBC to represent the black American demographic. I suggest either of MSNBC’s hosts Rachel Maddow or Thomas Roberts to represent the gay and lesbian community. Finally I suggest Filipino born Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, who’s come out publicly as a gay man who’s written extensively on HIV, and an illegal immigrant who advocates for The DREAM Act.

Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

Vargas would make an excellent debate panelist. In fact, serendipitously, he was recently kicked out of a Mitt Romney campaign event for holding a sign that read “I Am An American W/O Papers.”

These are my choices for panelists. There are those who will counter my call for representative panelists claiming fair questioning should take place regardless of the panelists’ race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

I agree. It should. But this creates the opportunity to personalize the issues. It’s one thing to attack a group in its absence. It’s quite another to attack that same group in its presence. Believe me, I have no delusions that any of these four candidates will suddenly become humane, but at least they’ll need to change pronouns. Instead of “they,” they’ll use “you.” And in this case, the “you” sitting on the panel is more invested in the truth.

There are those who will say my suggested panelists are ideological.

Yes they are. And so are the candidates.

So why not have a REAL go at it, rather than the theatrical badminton witnessed in the last debate (#17, again for those who are counting), hosted by CNN’s John King. How can anyone forget King’s opening salvo to Gingrich – the question on ex-wife Mary Ann’s accusations of open marriage – facilely tagged with “Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

Let’s get real. Anyone who’d seen Gingrich knew he’d salivate over that question. Red meat for the predator. King wasn’t delivering journalism. King was delivering the gripping opening scene designed to capture his audience. This was CNN theatre. And it was absurd.

I do respect Brian Williams, and while Williams, Adams and Reinhard are well-regarded, their demographic isn’t needed in this debate. What’s needed in this debate are journalists who represent the very demographics these candidates have been assailing; journalists who understand the damage these candidates are doing; journalists willing to confront these candidates about the hurt and divisiveness they are causing.

Linda Milazzo

And what’s truly needed in this debate are the images of a diverse blended America – not more monochromatic mirror images of the candidates themselves.

Linda Milazzo

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