Presidential debate moderator Kristen Welker demonstrated the importance of racial diversity in politics and journalism
Story at a glance
- Kristen Welker, an NBC News correspondent, earned widespread praise from both sides of the aisle for her job moderating Thursday’s debate.
- Welker, whose mother is Black, is the second Black woman to ever moderate a general presidential debate.
- President Trump expressed resentment that he had been criticized as hostile to people of color, comparing his contributions to the Black American community to those of former president Abraham Lincoln.
- “I can’t even see the audience because it’s so dark,” said President Trump. “But I don’t care who’s in the audience. I am the least racist person in this room.”
After President Trump refused to take part in a virtual second presidential debate scheduled for earlier this month, all eyes in the political world naturally shifted to Thursday night. The final showdown between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, last night’s debate was a consequential night for the two opponents, and their last formal chance to sway undecided voters before the quickly approaching election.
Tapped to moderate the momentous debate was NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, who at 44 years old was the youngest by nearly a generation of the four journalists chosen by the Commission on Presidential Debates to oversee this election season’s series of candidate faceoffs.
Per the rules laid out by the commission, Welker was tasked not only with debate moderation but also the selection of what topics on which the candidates would debate. Welker, who decided on six of them, quizzed both candidates on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.
Welker, the first Black woman to moderate a presidential debate since 1992, was roundly applauded for her performance on Thursday night — in which Welker proved adept at pacing, keeping the candidates from straying off topic, and perhaps most importantly, fact checking in real time.
“I think if there was a clear winner from this debate tonight it was, in fact, Kristen Welker,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “Kudos to Kristen and the way it was structured, the tremendous amount of work that went into it and the command that she asserted.”
“She actually got them to debate with each other. You heard an incredible contrast in policies.”
Welker was able to throw the candidates tough questions on important topics that had not yet been addressed, such as a pointed question she directed at President Trump about the economic hardship Americans have faced because of the coronavirus pandemic. “As of tonight, more than 12 million people are out of work,” she said. “Eight million more Americans have fallen into poverty, and more families are going hungry every day. Those hit hardest are women and people of color. They see Washington fighting over a relief bill. Mr. President, why haven’t you been able to get them the help they need?”
Trump blamed the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, saying she “doesn’t want to approve it,” while also saying, “I do.” Welker pressed on: “But you’re the president.”
Her quick but well-earned ascension
A Philadelphia native, Welker graduated from Harvard University in 1998 — going on to work for her local television station circuit for more than a decade before she was hired by Chris Blackman in 2005 as a general assignment reporter and weekend news anchor at NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate. Then, in January of this year, Welker added another notch to her belt as co-anchor of the weekend edition of “Today.”
Welker recently told Elle magazine that she saw the importance of having a diverse set of perspectives in the press from a young age, reminiscing on times she sat in on press conferences where reporters questioned her mom, who’s Black, about her marriage to her dad, who’s white.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, it really matters who asks the questions,’” she told Elle. Adding that she knows now just how crucial it is for newsrooms to reflect their audiences.
In her preparation for Thursday’s debate, Welker called voters around the country to ask what they wanted answered — workshopping questions and practicing how to politely yet firmly get the candidates to move smoothly from one issue to the next. During her prep she also tapped the moderator of the first debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, to get his advice.
“I’m jealous,” Chris Wallace said after Thursday’s debate. “I would’ve liked to have been able to moderate that debate and get a real exchange of views instead of hundreds of interruptions.”
The importance of representation
Welker’s line of questioning on race and policing in this country only helped to highlight how the importance of representation in journalism, as she posed the only question in the entire debate cycle about child separation at the border — an important issue that has often been overshadowed by coronavirus policy questioning. Welker asked President Trump how the parents of more than 500 migrant children taken from their families will be found, to which, after repeated follow-ups, the president finally said he was “trying very hard” to find them.
During the debate’s segment on climate change, Welker was unique in pointing out that people of color are much more likely to live near oil refineries and chemical plants. At one now heavily discussed point on Thursday night she asked former vice president Joe Biden about “the talk” that all BIPOC parents have with their kids about how to behave to avoid unnecessary confrontation with police officers.
Perhaps most notably, President Trump was asked by Welker about racial strife arising in the country.
“Mr. President, you’ve described the Black Lives Matter movement as a symbol of hate. You shared a video of a man chanting ‘white power’ to millions of your supporters. You’ve said that Black professional athletes exercising their First Amendment rights should be fired. What do you say to Americans who say that that kind of language, from a president, is contributing to a climate of hate, and racial strife?”
President Trump answered: “You have to understand, the first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, they were chanting, ‘Pigs in a blanket,’ talking about police.” It’s unclear what protest he is referring to where this chant was heard, since this is not a phrase associated with Black Lives Matter.
“That was my first glimpse of Black Lives Matter. I thought it was a terrible thing,” he continued on to say that he was “the least racist person in this room.”
Welker, who pressed on to ask the president what he has to say to Americans who are concerned about that rhetoric, was met with an answer by the president in which he compared his contributions to the Black American community to those of former president Abraham Lincoln — a comparison he has made in the past.
President Trump’s response incited a snarky response from Biden, who said sarcastically, “’Abraham Lincoln’ here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Biden said of President Trump. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire. Every single one.”
Regardless of the answers Welker received during her debate moderation Thursday night, her well-applauded performance and incisive questions shed light onto the importance of diverse representation in politics.
In fact, when she first got the call to moderate, Welker told Elle that her question to Joe Biden about “the talk” was the first question she wrote. “I wanted people to feel like this was accessible to them, that this was not a discussion that people who work in Washington were having. I thought that was an important way to capture this moment that many people of color feel is a moment of crisis, and to get at the heart of that.”