ST. LOUIS – Journalists applying to the Commission on Presidential Debates (search) for credentials to cover the presidential debates are being asked to provide their racial data, a move that has some upset.
In addition to requesting that applicants provide their name, Social Security or passport number, gender, address and country and date of birth, the online application asks respondents to describe their race using one of the following: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, black, not of Hispanic origin, Hispanic, white, not of Hispanic origin. A drop-down list gives respondents the option of not providing the information.
John Butler, news director at St. Louis radio station KMOX, said he found the question offensive.
"Here's the deal: It's not their ... business," he said. "We're journalists, period. We're not white, black, green, purple, male or female. End of story."
Alvin Reid, city editor of black weekly the St. Louis American, said he didn't have a problem with being asked for racial information, in light of additional security put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (search).
"I kind of understand that the face has to match the media credential, has to match the race, and I'm sure, while they didn't ask for your height and weight, that things like that are being screened a lot closer than two or three years ago," Reid said.
The debates have been scheduled for Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 8 and at Arizona State University on Oct. 13. The application also covers the vice presidential debate on Oct. 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
The executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Janet Brown, said the request for racial data was required by the Secret Service (search), which said it uses the data to conduct full background checks.
Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur said the data was one of several identifiers used to search national databases in an FBI crime system.
"The more information we can get initially, it helps us conduct these checks in a timely manner," Mazur said. He said an applicant's refusal to provide information about their race should not affect their chance of getting debate credentials, unless they are flagged for some other reason.
At least 2,500 journalists are expected to attend the St. Louis debate - if it happens.
Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute (search), a journalism think tank, questioned how knowing someone's race would help identify a security risk.
"If they're worried about terrorists gaining access to the presidential candidates by posing as journalists, that's a legitimate concern, and they need to take legitimate steps to address that," McBride said. "(But) asking people's race, I can't imagine how that would help them address that because a terrorist could be white, a terrorist could be black, a terrorist could be Asian."
A Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it was not the campaign policy to ask for information about race. A Kerry-Edwards campaign spokesman said the campaign refers all security issues to the Secret Service.