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.

6 comments so far

  1. Political Republican Opinion on

    There was no knowledge of Iffil’s book deal at the time that McCain agreed to have her as a moderator – a subject that a reputable journalist, some may argue, might have brought up. There is no doubting the disdain that shw showed toward Sarah Palin at the RNC, either.

    Nonetheless, if she doesn’t recuse herself, she may be placed in the awkward position of having to serve up softballs to Palin in order to prove that she is not biased. It’s a lose-lose either way for her.

    We’ll all know for sure when the book comes out!

  2. jacob1207 on

    Gwen Ifill was announced as the veep debate moderator on August 5th. Wikipedia mentions her book deal, including the full title of the volume, on 2 September and it was probably known before that.

    At an absolute minimum, they had five weeks to get a different moderator if they had any concerns whatsoever. If she didn’t inform them of the book–and I don’t know if she did or didn’t–and they took that for evidence of bias they could have asked her to step aside and there wouldn’t have been any big deal; few would have even known about it and no news would have been made. But no one said anything until the debate was less than 48 hours away and it is impractical to change moderators now. I think that certainly raises questions about the timing and motivation of these concerns.

    Though, again, it would have been perfectly legitimate to ask for a different moderator, simply to avoid any possibility that it could look like there was a conflict of interest. The story should be the candidates, not the moderator. This is a distraction.

  3. Political Republican Opinion on

    jacob1207 – it is indeed, an unnecessary distraction. I do find it hard to believe, given the title of the book, that she has not written anything about Obama yet. Are we to believe that the publishers were not given anything as a prelude to the contents of the book before signing her to a deal?

  4. jacob1207 on

    Political Republican Opinion, I’m sure the publisher had a good idea about the contents and tone of the book when they inked the deal. And the McCain campaign knew, at the very least, the title, and could have gotten much more information on the book had they wanted to. This was possible a month ago.

    I thought that Ifill did a good job moderating the debate, just as she did with the Cheney-Edwards debate. I didn’t watch much of the instant punditry after the debate concluded, but they briefly mentioned that she did a good job and didn’t anticipate the moderator becoming the story. Hopefully she won’t as the media continue to process the Palin-Biden encounter.

  5. Ben on

    Dick Cheney could have moderated that debate, and Sarah Palin would have still come off looking like a confused idiot.

  6. Political Republican Opinion on

    After watching the debate, I commented to my wife that Ifill did a good job and she agreed (she’s a little more unbiased than I am, so sometimes I need to check myself).

    We both thought, however, that the debate was a tie. Each candidate had their moments of foolishness, distortions and triumphs.

    With only one “news” station that tends to be conservative going against dozens of those that lean to the Left, the tie goes to the Liberal, however.

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