Veep debate moderator may not be impartial
With the first and only Vice Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin just over 24 hours away there is now concern about the neutrality of the moderator, PBS journalist Gwen Ifill. The McCain campaign is saying that they think she’ll do a good job; nonetheless they’re calling into question her impartiality, largely over her upcoming book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which is scheduled to be released January 20, 2009—Inauguaration Day.
Doubleday, the publisher says the book “surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.” In addition to Obama, the book also deals with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Ifill says she has yet to even write the chapter on Obama and that her reputation as a journalist indicates that she can and will be impartial during the debate.
Some conservatives are playing this up. In an article for National Review Online columnist Michelle Malkin says that “She’s so far in the tank for the Democratic presidential candidate, her oxygen delivery line is running out.” Ouch.
Dick Morris, on Bill O’Reilly’s program pointed out another possible conflict of interest that I hadn’t considered. Morris says that her book will sell much better if Obama wins the election than if he doesn’t and that she stands to make $300,000 or more in additional royalties if the ticket that Palin is on loses.
I recall that Ifill did a very good job moderating the Cheney-Edwards vice presidential debate in 2004 and I think she is a professional journalist who shouldn’t intentionally make any decisions that would favor Biden unfairly; good reporters are used to keeping their personal views out of their work. However, there could still be unconscious bias, which woul be just as bad. And even if there is no bias, the perception that there could be would be bad. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.
Given the circumstances, Ifill probably should have recused herself, and probably shouldn’t have been asked to host the debate to begin with once it was known that Obama was the nominee. But McCain could have vetoed her selection; it wouldn’t have been a big deal and could have been done politely and in a low key manner. So why didn’t he? One possibility is that his campaign wants the story after the debate to be on the media and how unfair they are to Palin and stacked the deck against her. That this issue over Ifill is coming up the day before the debate, when it is impractical to get a new moderator or reschedule, lends credence to this possibility.
Expectations are that Biden should win, given his much greater experience and knowledge. I think that much of the talk on this issue is being orchestrated to further lower expectations for Palin, making it easier for her to exceed them. We’ll have to see how it goes. The debate begins at 9:00 pm EST Thursday.