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Journalists seeking to cover debates asked to provide racial information

ST. LOUIS — Journalists requesting credentials for the presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 8 at Washington University are being asked to disclose their race on the media application.

The question surprised several St. Louis editors and news directors, eliciting prickly responses from some and recalling for others a flare-up over the race of an Arizona photographer scheduled to cover a visit by the vice president.

Requests for racial information have not been part of the standard questions posed to media covering the dozens of campaign visits President George W. Bush or his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, have made to Missouri recently.

John Butler, news director at KMOX, said he found the question offensive.

“Here’s the deal: It’s not their damn business,” he said. “We’re journalists, period. We’re not white, black, green, purple, male or female. End of story.”

Media applying for credentials to the presidential debates fill out their requests online. The application, distributed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, asks the applicant for a photo and a Social Security number or, if the journalist is not a U.S. resident, a passport number. It also asks for gender, a current address and the city, state and country of birth. The application gives the option of declining to provide race information.

On the question of race, the individual can choose from the following, listed in order: American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Black, not of Hispanic Origin; Hispanic; I Do Not Wish to Provide; White, not of Hispanic Origin.

The race of journalists became a national issue more than a month ago when an Arizona Daily Star photographer, Mamta Popat, appeared to be singled out for additional scrutiny by the Bush campaign.

Campaign officials called the woman’s office the day before a rally featuring Vice President Dick Cheney in Tucson to ask about Popat’s race. The paper’s managing editor challenged the question’s relevance and was told that Popat, who is of Indian descent, might be denied access to the event. The campaign later contacted the editor to say the photographer’s credentials had been cleared.

A Bush-Cheney spokesman said Wednesday that it was not the campaign’s policy to require racial information. A Kerry campaign spokesman said its campaign refers all security issues to the U.S. Secret Service.

Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said the request for racial information was a requirement of the Secret Service, which said it needed the information to conduct full background checks.

Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur said racial information was among several “law enforcement identifiers used to facilitate national database searches” run through an FBI crime system. Other identifiers include name, date of birth and Social Security number.

Mazur said an applicant’s refusal to divulge racial information should not affect his or her chance of getting debate credentials, unless the application is flagged because of other information.

Credentials for the 2000 presidential debates were handled by the Senate Press Gallery. Applications did not ask for race information.

At least 2,500 journalists are expected to attend the presidential debates.

Alvin Reid, city editor at the St. Louis American, said he had no problem being asked racial information, in light of all the additional security measures law enforcement has taken after Sept. 11. “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,” he said.


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