By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Readying the Ifill excuse

Today was the first time I’d heard there was any controversy over the choice of Gwen Ifill as moderator of tomorrow’s vice-presidential debate. It seems that Ifill has a book coming out that is largely* about Barack Obama.

Adam Reilly does a good job of putting together a timeline that shows everyone knew about Ifill’s book back in July and August, but that no one on the Republican side cared until John McCain and Sarah Palin began to tank.

Jack Shafer, meanwhile, observes that few media figures are as fair as Ifill. He’s right. The McCain campaign couldn’t possibly believe Ifill is going to stick it to Palin tomorrow. Ergo, it looks like excuses are being prepared in advance in case Palin performs poorly.

*Thursday update: Not even. It’s partly about Obama.

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  1. Rich

    Ergo, it looks like excuses are being prepared in advance in case yet another example of the media being totally in the tank for The Messiah comes to light.Come on Dan — at least try to hide your water-carrying.

  2. Prospecticus

    I’m no fan of Ifill at all (PBS has managed to sink both Washington and Wall Street Week). Why don’t they cut the pretense and just name the show I’fill’s Washington . I agree with Wolcott that she’s too much of a verbal pest to be a no nonsense moderator. But while I think she should gracefully bow out (not bloody likely), I really don’t see where Palin’s difficulties should they arise, will have anything to do with Ifill.

  3. O-FISH-L

    Dan, you have McCain-Palin “tanking” in the polls and your protege at the Phoenix has them in “free fall”. Only problem, Gallup today has it 48%-44%. If Gwen Ifill as moderator is so easily defended, why the need to change the subject to the polls, never mind exaggerating Obama’s slight advantage? Back to Ifill, I’m reminded of the crude but true Abe Rosenthal rule recently posted on Media Nation: “You can fuck an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can’t cover the circus.”Since Ifill’s book is certain to be the equivalent of dry-humping Obama or “outercourse”, isn’t that the moral equivalent? Poised to profit by an Obama win, Gwen Ifill has no business covering politics this year for any objective news outlet, never mind moderating this debate. You have a duty to say so, Professor. Speak up!

  4. Dot Lane

    “In case Palin performs poorly.”If Palin performs poorly, it is because that mean old monolithic-in-the-tank-for-Obama media will jump on anything she says so she’s afraid to answer questions, and even if she does answer a question, they’ll rip parts of her answers out of their proper context to make her look bad. Everyone knows the media hates Palin because that meanie Katie Couric is *so* tough, asking her about what publications she reads and for other Supreme Court decisions she disagrees with. The reason why Palin couldn’t answer that question is, of course, the liberal education system which teaches kids about things like Brown v. Board of Education or Loving v. Virginia so the only decisions Palin probably knows are the ones where activist judges legislated from the bench in an attempt to carry out a liberal social engineering agenda and if she said Brown v. Board of Education was decided incorrectly she’d unfairly be labeled a racist when all she really is is a state’s rights loving gal which is why she can’t support Roe v. Wade. Oddly enough though, she can say that there is a privacy right in the Constitution, which won’t endear her to those seeking not only to have Roe v. Wade overturned, but also Griswold v. Connecticut.It seems to me that Sarah was more Sarah Six-Pack in college than Sarah Scholar. Of course, I’m just a liberal elitist who paid attention in my history classes so what do I know?The only acceptable moderator right now is Rush Limbaugh, or, barring that, a ficus.

  5. Dot Lane

    o-f-l:McCain’s polling in battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio show him rapidly losing ground. The Gallup three-day rolling average of national voters masks the troubling numbers at the state level. Choosing the national poll with the smallest spread may make you feel better, but you’re whistling past the graveyard if the state-by-state polls hold up. If Florida is truly in play, McCain has real problems.

  6. Tunder

    Laughable. Rush, Sean and Bill O’Reilly could all set up shop across from Palin and Biden tomorrow and Governor Palin would still blink and pause and ramble with nary an intelligent, coherent thought in sight. Rich, etc.: please post tomorrow after the debate on how Gwen Ifill’s bias and unfair treatment of Palin effected the outcome of the debate. Examples please.See you then…

  7. O-FISH-L

    “If Florida is truly in play, McCain has real problems.”Not so much. I recall FL being in play in 2000 and 2004. Not a problem, except for the Dems.Back to the stated subject of Dan’s post, the controversy of Gwen Ifill as moderator. What do the polls have to do with it? If Ifill is poised to make a profit if Obama wins the election, isn’t her involvement still unethical even if the polls have Obama ahead [or behind] 99% to 1%. Comingling the polls in a discussion of Ifill’s lack of ethics is a red herring if ever there was one.

  8. Tunder

    Do you think that if McCain had chosen Lieberman for his VP that the day before the debate they’d be screaming about Gwen Ifill as moderator? Another smoke-screen by the party that is now the offical Party of Whiners. Remember Stop Global Whining which was/is a big hit with the Right? I guess certain whining is OK.

  9. Dot Lane

    “Not so much. I recall FL being in play in 2000 and 2004. Not a problem, except for the Dems.”You don’t spend much time looking at the electoral college map predictions do you? To win, McCain has to hold onto almost every state Bush won in 2004, since it doesn’t look like any states that voted for Kerry in 2004 will vote for McCain in 2008. Colorado, Iowa, and New Mexico all look like they will go Obama, which puts McCain under the total needed to win. Ohio, Virginia, and Florida are all currently in play. In other words, if McCain loses one of those three states, he’s done.Lack of ethics? The McCain campaign signed off on her as moderator knowing full well she was writing the book. This isn’t an ethical question. The polls have everything to do with it: a sinking campaign will grasp at anything it can to try to stop the leaking. Dan is right: concerns over Ifill started to appear right after Sarah Palin proved she couldn’t handle that paragon of hard hitting journalism Katie Couric combined with McCain losing substantial ground in battleground states while watching Palin’s negatives pile up in polling data.If you don’t think there is a correlation between the sudden criticism of Ifill and the abysmal performance of Palin and McCain over the last week, that’s fine. But if you’re not worried about how your candidate will do, why would you even care about the moderator?

  10. MeTheSheeple

    Dot Lane: The only acceptable moderator right now is Rush Limbaugh, or, barring that, a ficus.Is it possible, do you think, to get a hypocritical ficus with a potash addiction, or would that unfairly skew the debate?

  11. Dan Kennedy

    According to the description, Ifill has written an extended work of journalism that includes interviews with Obama and many other black political figures. We’re not talking about an authorized biography or a ghosted autobiography. We’re talking about journalism. To put it in Abe Rosenthal terms, no one is fucking the elephant.If this disqualifies her from moderating a debate, then we suddenly have jury-pool rules in play. Ms. Ifill, have you ever heard of either candidate? If you have, do you doubt your ability to be fair and impartial?Again, it’s notable that Ifill’s book was public knowledge as far back as July. I still haven’t seen anything to suggest the McCain campaign is complaining, either — just a few partisans on the right.

  12. Peter Porcupine

    ms. Lane – You are correct, we DON’T spend much time reading electoral college map predictions; we prefer reading the results. Also – “The McCain campaign signed off on her as moderator knowing full well she was writing the book.”Do you have a citation for that asssertion? The McCain camp says they DIDN’T know, as does the debate commission.DK – this is really a media rather than a political question. McCain has already said the Ms. Ifill is a professional, and he expects her to do a good job. In point of fact, jury pool rules DO apply to these choices – nobody will be a moderator who has a family member working on a campaign, for example.It comes down to how public was this knowledge. Unless you wre trolling for Gwen Ifill’s name on Amazon – and why would you,as she’s never written a book before – how wouldyou know this? If I posted a legal notice on Media Nation, would that meet ‘disclosure’ requirements, because I had put it ‘out there’?I happen to think Ms. Ifill WILL do a good job myself, but I think she had a responsibility to make disclosure to the commision when she was invited, and I think her ear is tin if she thinks nobody would care. In the past, you’ve discouraged donation and even party registration among journalists to prevent the appearnce of bias. How is this any different?

  13. Dan Kennedy

    PP: It was out there. If no one knew, and if they now think it’s an issue, then shame on them.But there’s nothing to disclose. Ifill is practicing her craft as a journalist. As I said, this is not an authorized bio or a ghosted autobiography of Obama. It’s an extended piece of journalism, and Obama is one of the people she interviewed. This is neither a big deal nor a small deal.BTW, do we all understand how unlikely it is that Ifill will even make any money from the book? Let’s get real.

  14. O-FISH-L

    Dan wrote, “BTW, do we all understand how unlikely it is that Ifill will even make any money from the book? Let’s get real.”You get real Dan. With a title like, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” and an Inauguration Day release date, Ifill is far more likely to make money if Obama wins. With potential income staked to an Obama win, Ifill has no business being involved in the debate, and you know it Dan. You lose credibility by flailing about why the issue is now being raised, rather than addressing the issue itself. Lastly, Ifill herself admits she failed to disclose the upcoming book to the debate commission. What’s this, catch me if you can, and if you do catch me, it better be more than a few days before the debate?The bottom line is that if Ifill is perceived as too soft on Palin, it will be argued that she was hypersensitive to the book deal, too hard on Palin and it’s because she profits from an Obama win. With that pall cast, and survey data showing most Americans already believe that the media is rooting for Obama, Ifill ought to bow out.

  15. Michael Pahre

    As Ifill’s critics, like Michelle Malkin, claim that they are sure that her writing in the book is “in the tank for Obama,” the Boston Globe reported today that Ifill “hasn’t written the Obama chapter yet.”How can anyone claim Ifill’s book is pro- or anti-Obama if she has yet to write the part about Obama?

  16. Dot Lane

    You’re right PP. I’m sorry assumed the McCain campaign was of minimal competence and did some background research on potential moderators. I will add however, that they have a vested interest in claiming that they did not know, as the alternative is far worse. If we’re going to go into the idiocy about people writing books, then why not complain about Tom Brokaw then? Everyone knows he gets down on bended knee when talking about the greatest generation and makes money writing books about that time period and that McCain’s family was heavily involved in the WWII effort. Given his hero worship, how can he be expected to be impartial when dealing with the son of admirals?As to not spending much time reading electoral college predictions, well, good for you PP. Ignorance is indeed bliss. On the other hand, I really wasn’t talking to *you*, unless you and o-fish-l are the same person. I couldn’t care less if you look at the polls or not, you’re not the one claiming that McCain campaign wouldn’t do anything in response to poll data. I am assuming once again that the McCain campaign is minimally competent and is looking at the polling every day in battleground states and spending money and allocating resources and shaping strategy to where they might have maximum effect.

  17. Peter Porcupine

    Mr. Pahre – In fact, it doesn’t MATTER if the book is positive or negative; she has announced she will be on written record with an opinion, hence, she has formed one. Again, I think she is a professional, but this isn’t an evidentiary hearing, it’s a matter of public PERCEPTION.The fact that Ms. Lane thinks that a book on a subject matter which never references McCain by name (I have read Browkaw’s book) is equivalent to a book using a specific person as an example of a phenomenon demonstrates how variable public perception is.

  18. jvwalt

    To the right wingers who are whining about potential bias by Ifill — who has a long and distinguished career as a journalist, she’s not some Jerry Corsi nutjob — I’ll say to you what various right-wing commentators said about Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign: If Palin can’t stand up to tough questioning — even unfair questioning — how is she ever going to stand up to the bad guys in the Middle East, or North Korea, or a Democratic-majority Congress? If she wilts under the withering glare of Katie Couric, how the hell is she ever going to succeed as President?

  19. Ani

    Even I knew about Ifill’s book before this (from watching PBS).

  20. Dot Lane

    PP:I was simply pointing out how the same ridiculous argument can be made to discredit Brokaw. Personally, I wouldn’t employ either. Then again I don’t depend on ginning up faux outrage to make my living like Michelle Malkin does.

  21. Dan Kennedy

    Ani: You had an unfair advantage. Real Americans don’t want PBS. Only elitists who are probably French.

  22. Ani

    Oui, oui.I think it was Emily Rooney’s interview of Ifill where I learned about Ifill’s book.

  23. calliman

    Ifill is a very fair interviewer. She is writing a journalist book about the change in racial politics, not “Why Obama must win.”

  24. Nial Liszt

    Gwen “I {heart} Obama” Ifill puff piece on Obamas in Essence Magazine. The line “Under relentless media scrutiny…” is particularly amusing. Journalist indeed.

  25. Michael Pahre

    The Tom Brokaw example is a good one — for 1996, not now. His book, The Greatest Generation, came out in 1998, so he may very well have been working on it (or conceiving it in his mind) in 1996 during that year’s presidential campaign.Would anybody say with a straight face that in 1996 Tom Brokaw was “in the tank for WWII veteran Bob Dole” because Brokaw was possibly working on a book which would later prove to be gushing about those people who served during WWII? Or that Brokaw was obviously biased in favor of George Herbert Walker Bush because of Bush’s WWII service? I highly doubt it. (Both Bush and Dole appear in the index for the book and have significant numbers of pages referring to each.)Chalk up the manufactured furor and outrageous outrage over Ifill’s unfinished book to paranoia perpetrated and promulgated by prickly partisans (e.g., Fox News Channel).

  26. greatko1

    I don’t think PP and I see eye to eye on politics, but I have to agree with the “tin ear” assessment.Even leaving aside, Dan, that Ifill may not, in fact, make a dime on the book, the fact is that the title includes the phrase “Age of Obama” and the release date is Inauguration Day. I don’t think it’s a great stretch to say that the title and release date indicates the author predicts (and hopes?) that Jan. 20 will be the “dawning” of that age. And the title starts, “The Breakthrough.” Is it really a “breakthrough” if McCain is the one with his hand on the Bible? Maybe, maybe not.Even if we accept that Ifill can, in fact, be fair, as Liz Cox Barrett notes, the avoidance of even the appearance of a conflict matters, too.With all due respect, Michael, I am not sure the Brokaw book example holds. Might be more on point if the book were “The Greatest Generation and the Age of Bob Dole/GHW Bush.” Yes, I think the title is that much of a killer.As a veteran journalist, she had to know how the title would play (and perhaps how it would be USED by those with certain agendas) in concert with her role as moderator. Amid the other journalistic principles that have been raised in this debate, perhaps one even more fundamental has yet to be mentioned: Don’t become part of the story. Was it really that unforeseeable that this would generate a firestorm (rightly or wrongly)? If one accepts the thesis that McCain-Palin is engaged in a “war on the media” (seems obvious), shouldn’t Ifill have taken care not to provide additional ammunition?IMO, she should have borrowed a phrase from the Alaskan governor and said, “Thanks but no thanks” to the offer to moderate the debate.

  27. mike_b1

    As it turned out, even this debate was above Ifill’s abilities. She struggled mightily to keep the responses on track, clearly didn’t go over the ground rules with the candidates beforehand, and toward the end even caught some of Palin’s nervous stammering.

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