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Opinion: With No Latino Moderator, Trump Shapes Presidential Debates

Image: Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a campaign rally, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Wilmington, Ohio. Evan Vucci / AP

Donald Trump has won. That is, with the election 65 days away, he has succeeded in shaping the presidential debates to his liking. On Friday the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the moderators for the upcoming debates: Lester Holt from NBC News on September 26, Martha Raddatz (from ABC) and Anderson Cooper (from CNN) on October 9, and Chris Wallace from Fox News on October 19. The vice-presidential debate on October 4will be moderated by Elaine Quijano from CBS News.

This is an impressive line-up of journalists, one that is notable for its diversity as well. Among the moderators are two women, an African-American, and an out gay man. Quijano is Asian-American.

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Missing from this stellar group, however, are any Latinos. That's a mistake, because one of the most important issues of the 2016 race has been immigration, which holds personal resonance for millions of Hispanic Americans. Experts say that the Latino vote will be crucial to winning the White House this year. Moreover, there are qualified Latino journalists who could have been included among the moderators, and they could have been impartial towards both candidates.

Unfortunately the decision not to include a Latino moderator suggests that the Commission caved to demands from the Trump campaign.

The 2016 presidential race has been unique and unprecedented. Trump began his campaign - literally on Day One - by making derogatory statements about immigrants. He questioned the integrity of a Mexican-American judge. He made illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign. He put Latinos front and center in this race. So all Americans should see how he faces a moderator that understands the Latino community and our concerns.

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Consider that Telemundo anchor Maria Celeste Arraras won praise for her role in the February GOP debate. Not only did she question Marco Rubio about apparently contradictory statements he had made in English and Spanish, she asked nuanced questions of the candidates about immigration policy. She also reminded Trump - and a national audience - that U.S. officials have said that our Canadian border poses more of a potential terror threat than our border with Mexico. Her perspective was valuable and thoughtful.

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This election cycle is different as well because it's the first since three former debate moderators have retired from regular television work. Bob Schieffer, Jim Lehrer, and Candy Crowley were not in the running to be moderators this year. Their absence could have been a prime opportunity to elevate a Latino journalist's stature. Excluding Jorge Ramos of Univision because he has publicly feuded with Trump, Hispanic journalists who could have potentially served as 2016 debate moderators include Maria Elena Salinas of Univision, Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo and NBC or ABC's Tom Llamas or Cecilia Vega.

Leaving Latino journalists out of high-profile events only furthers the idea that they are not up the task of participating in them. Moderating a presidential debate can make someone a household name overnight, and qualified Latinos deserve a shot at these opportunities like anyone else.

What is troubling here is that in August CNN reported on the "unprecedented challenge the bipartisan Commission faces in selecting individuals who are immune (or at least as immune as possible) to accusations of bias" due to one factor: Trump. Given that he does not trust a Hispanic federal judge to be unbiased towards him, Trump presumably did not want any Hispanics as moderators - and it sure looks like the Commission may have given into his demands. Even if that were not the case, the lack of Latinos this year appears less like an oversight and more of an exclusion.

True, a Latino journalist should not be a debate moderator solely for the sake of diversity or representation, or to serve in an advocacy role

There may be those on the Commission who wrongly believe that any Latino moderator would inherently be biased against Donald Trump. Yet if the Commission were genuinely concerned about bias, then why did they select Wallace of Fox News? Until recently, Wallace worked for Roger Ailes, who is now advising Trump and is reportedly helping him prepare for the debates. Wallace has praised Ailes to the New York Times, saying he "admired him tremendously professionally, and loved him personally." Trump has praised Wallace's Sunday show on social media.

The Wallace/Ailes connection seems like more potential evidence of bias than the possibility that a Latino moderator might favor Clinton over Trump.

No wonder that the President and CEO of Univision, Randy Falco, penned an open letter to the Commission expressing "disappointment" and "disbelief" that they did not announce any Latino moderators. Falco noted the importance of the Latino vote in recent elections, and that the percentage of registered Latino voters has increased in battleground states like Nevada and Florida.

"It's an abdication of your responsibility to represent and reflect one of the largest and most influential communities in the U.S.," Falco wrote to the Commission. And he's right.

Latinos are central to this presidential race, and deserve to be part of the conversation at the debates. It was an error by the Commission to leave Latino journalists out.

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