Gwen Ifill, Pro-Obama Author, Debate Moderator

There’s a minor hubbub brewing over the fact that Gwen Ifill, who will once again moderate the vice presidential debate, is publishing a pro-Obama book shortly after the election, apparently unbeknownst to the McCain-Palin campaign.

Questions are being raised about the objectivity of Thursday’s vice presidential debate moderator after news surfaced that she is releasing a new book promoting Barack Obama and other black politicians who have benefited from the civil rights struggle.

Gwen Ifill, of PBS’ “The NewsHour,” is expected to remain as moderator, however.

“The book has been a known factor for months, so I’m not sure what the big deal is,” said NewsHour spokeswoman Anne Bell.  She told FOXNews.com that there were no concerns about Ifill’s neutrality, and that the debate Thursday between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden would go forward as planned. Ifill also moderated the 2004 vice presidential debate. “We were pleased that the (debate) commission once again turned to Gwen to moderate the debate,” Bell said. “They’ve known and trusted her as a moderator and that’s wonderful.”

Ifill’s book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” is due to be released about the same time the next president takes the oath of office.  In her book, Ifill contends that the black political structure of the civil rights movement has cleared the way for post-racial politicians to ascend to new heights.

Now some are wondering whether Ifill can be fair and balanced, and whether she should be the moderator of Thursday’s 9 p.m. ET debate.  “Clearly her books aren’t going to do as well unless Obama wins, so it looks like she has some investment, literally, in one candidate or the other. And she’s supposed to be sitting there as a neutral arbiter during the debate,” said NPR’s Juan Williams, a FOX News contributor. “I think the world of Gwen Ifill but I know there’s a perception problem.”

John McCain told FOX News Wednesday he believes Ifill will be “objective” at the debate. “Does this help if she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not,” McCain said. “But I have confidence Gwen Ifill will do a professional job.”

Andrew Sullivan thinks even raising the question is slimy, if not racist and misogynistic.

It’s straight out of Rove. Attack the debate moderator. The best that can happen from the Rove-Schmidt point of view is that Ifill softens her questions to Palin out of fear of being smeared by the McCain camp, as they have tried to smear me and any other journalist doing their job. The worst is that Ifill does not get intimidated, asks tough questions, and then gets the post-debate spin by the GOP focused on her, not Palin. It helps too that Ifill is black: it shores up the racist vote McCain needs to win.

Why not ask Couric instead? Or Campbell Brown? It should be a woman. And removing Ifill will only help black turnout. But I really miss Tim Russert right now, don’t you?

But, surely, it’s fair to ask whether Ifil is objective here.   Presumably, Democrats would raise similar questions if a pro-McCain moderator had been chosen.  Goodness, the Democrats canceled primary debates that were hosted by Fox News because they’re viewed as pro-Republican even though there were not going to be any Republicans in the debates!

Of course, anyone who’s ever read any of Jim Lehrer’s novels (I’ve read several; they’re good) knows that he’s sympathetic to the Democrats and has a visceral dislike for certain types of conservatives.  Indeed, any network anchor aside from Fox’s Brit Hume would be presumed to be biased in favor of the Democrat — and he’d be presumed to be based in favor of the Republican.     Perhaps the answer is to get someone other than a network answer to do the job?  Or, perhaps, get someone like C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb who’s scrupulously neutral?

I honestly don’t think it’s that big a deal.   The late Tim Russert was an unabashed Democrat but he generally managed to be pretty tough on anyone in his line of fire.  Lehrer does a decent job at these things, bending over so far to be neutral that he’s sometimes accused of being too soft on the candidates.  Ifill’s not a great moderator, frankly, but, as McCain says, she’s a professional.  To the extent that she’s in the tank for Obama, it would have been the case regardless of the book deal.

Are Republicans who are raising this trying to create a ready-made excuse in advance of the debate?  To make Ifill more self conscious about asking Palin tough questions?  Absolutely!  It’s a time honored game tactic employed by the best coaches.

UPDATE: I’m a fan of Howie Kurtz but can only chuckle his assertion, of a book whose subtitle proclaims this The Age of Obama, that, “There is no evidence that the book will be favorable to the Democratic nominee.”

Craig Henry rounds up other reactions and is less nonchalant than I am.  Indeed, I tend to take the view expressed in his title, albeit as a statement rather than a challenge.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    This is idiotic. The campaigns agreed on all of the debate moderators, so if this is an issue, why didn’t the McCain campaign raise it? They were going to decline having the second presidential debate moderated by NBC until Tom Brokaw volunteered for the job, so it’s not like McCain’s campaign wasn’t involved.

    Also, I’m growing increasingly annoyed with claims of bias on both sides. First of all, the word bias is improperly used, but that’s a whole ‘nothing thing. Second, a candidate for President ought to be able to handle journalists who don’t like them. If they’re afraid of “biased” journalists and use them as an excuse for their performance, how can we expect them to handle tricky negotiations with hostile world leaders?

  2. Paulette says:

    Has anyone seen the news on Tom Brokaw? The fact that he misquoted the poll percentages to favor John McCain on Meet the Press last Sunday? Also, his attempts to remove Matthews and Olberman from the political debates on MSNBC? Supposedly he didn’t like what they were saying about the McCain campaign. Isn’t he moderating the second Presidential debate?

  3. Bithead says:

    This is idiotic. The campaigns agreed on all of the debate moderators, so if this is an issue, why didn’t the McCain campaign raise it?

    Mostly because they hadn’t heard about the book.
    But I wonder a bit at that, given I wonder why it would even be a question if someone who works for PBS would tilt left. I can’t think of a time shen that situation was NOT true, since their inception.

  4. hugh says:

    This issue is about more than bias. Ms. Ifill has a clear, multi-hundred-thousand-dollar conflict of interest! That is, if Obama isn’t elected her book won’t work whereas if he is elected it just might work.

    It’s probably too much to ask to find a moderator that isn’t biased in favor of the democratic ticket, but shouldn’t they have been able to find someone without a huge financial interest in the outcome?

  5. Bithead says:

    Second, a candidate for President ought to be able to handle journalists who don’t like them. If they’re afraid of “biased” journalists and use them as an excuse for their performance, how can we expect them to handle tricky negotiations with hostile world leaders?

    World leaders do not profess to be unbiased, nor do they ahve the power, in the end to affect and direct American elections.

  6. just me says:

    I am not bothered by having her as moderator, although I do think her relationship, support of, and book about Obama should be disclosed before the debate.

    But then I am not a believer in an unbiased media. I think everyone has bias, and even when they try hard to not let it show it often seeps in in small ways. I would rather people just be up front about their positions and let the reader/watcher/listener decide if they are being fair or not.

    I don’t think it is slimy to raise concerns about the bias, but I also don’t think anything more than revealing the possible bias through a short disclosure at the beginning of the debate is necessary.

    But I do think those who see no issue at all would be horrified Hume or some other Fox employee was invited.

  7. Michael says:

    This issue is about more than bias. Ms. Ifill has a clear, multi-hundred-thousand-dollar conflict of interest!

    The bias I’m not sure about, having not read the book, but certainly it should be treated as a conflict of interest.

    I am not bothered by having her as moderator, although I do think her relationship, support of, and book about Obama should be disclosed before the debate.

    I agree with that too, but I’m not sure it would do enough to alleviate conflict of interest concerns, or that it matters.

    If Palin does poorly her campaign will blame it on the moderator’s bais, if Palin does well then Biden’s team will blame it on the moderator overcompensating to avoid the accusation of bias. In the end, whoever wins the debate, the moderator loses.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Professionals in any field understand that even the appearance of a conflict of interest is enough they should recuse themselves from whatever they are charged to do. If journalists want to be considered professionals they should recognize that established norm. To ignore it show ignorance or contempt.

    In this case it’s bad enough she is writing the book but the fact she has a financial interest in the elections outcome through the book leaves no doubt she has at least the appearance of a conflict. She must step away for the sake of herself and her profession.

  9. sam says:

    Are Republicans who are raising this trying to create a ready-made excuse in advance of the debate?

    That’s rhetorical, I hope.

  10. Matt says:

    Mostly because they hadn’t heard about the book.

    I’ve seen you say this a couple times in relation to the McCain campaign and their various missteps. Since those prior statements are lost to the pages of old I’ll solely focus on this example. My question is why are you supporting a campaign that is so obviously incompetent that they didn’t know about a book published years ago by the moderator they approved of? Personally I wouldn’t vote for McCain but I really hope his campaign is in such a poor state that they didn’t know about this book. So naturally I can’t help but believe they agreed to this moderator knowing full well they could use her book and “conflict of interests” as a method of damage control. If Palin does well they’ll trumpet her ability to overcome and obviously hostile debate moderator and if she does poorly they’ll blame it on an obviously hostile debate moderator.. Win win for them..

  11. “…for the sake of her profession.”

    Snort. The fourth estate is now using eminent domain to take what it wants.

  12. Matt says:

    and an argh

  13. Floyd says:

    “”Andrew Sullivan thinks even raising the question is slimy, if not racist and misogynistic.””
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    I take issue with this statement! Especially the first three words

  14. Eric says:

    Hey, crybabies, try this on for size:

    “Geez, if Palin can’t handle Ifill, how can we trust her to handle Osama bin Laden?”

    Hmm.. where’ve we heard something like that before.. Surely not from Faux News.

    Seriously, you babies are worried about Gwen Ifill? Gwen Ifill?! You’ve got to be kidding me. How much more milquetoasty can you get than Gwen Ifill?

    My god, you righties are turning out to be the biggest buncha crybabies I’ve ever seen.

    (Triumph, we could use some of your good ol’ fashioned sarcasm here!)

  15. Floyd says:

    Does anyone want to name just one objective moderator of these pseudo-debates in this century?

  16. Wayne says:

    They need to have Hannity or Rush moderate one of the debates. Wasn’t it the left that cried having a Democratic primary debate on Fox News until the Dems cancel it?

  17. Bandit says:

    Ifill had to take it after Michelle O. turned it down.

  18. legion says:

    Ummmm… hate to bust the right’s little whine balloon, but Ifill’s book was public knowledge at least as early as July 23rd:

    “We have an awkward history about how to talk about race in the nation and in newsrooms,” says Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent for PBS’ “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” slated for publication early next year.

    which was well before both campaigns agreed to Ifill’s being a moderator, as announced on the 6th of August.

    Either the McCain Campaign always knew about this and always intended to use it as cheap political leverage or they’re just as grossly incompetent as you all deeply fear. Either way, this heartache over Ifill now is pathetic and childish and utterly transparent.

  19. brainy435 says:

    “My question is why are you supporting a campaign that is so obviously incompetent that they didn’t know about a book published years ago by the moderator they approved of?”

    My question is why is your reading comprehension so poor that you didn’t catch the fact that the book won’t be released until “about the same time the next president takes the oath of office.”

  20. Bob says:

    We really need to rethink journalism as a profession. Ifill’s will monetarially benefit while authoring a book on one party’s candidate and yet did not excuse herself from moderating. Why are there no disclosure laws for journalists? This gives the appearance of bias. Did Conkrite write books for or against Nixon while anchor? The increasingly partisan bias and appearance of bias has larger numbers of population thinking journalists are pitching their beliefs rather than news. Not good for the profession or for country.

  21. anjin-san says:

    The GOP succeeded in getting a training wheel format for Palin. Now they have found a new excuse for her.

    Whine Hard With a Vengeance. Playing nightly on Fox News.

    It will just get louder as the McCain campaing’s death-spiral tightens…

  22. Beldar says:

    First: There are 2 Ls in Ifill.

    Second: This is a direct financial conflict of interest. Whether the book ends up being pro-Obama or not, it’s premised — as its title proves pretty definitively — on this being “the Age of Obama.” It can’t be denied that she’ll sell more books if Obama wins, and she’ll have a more of a turkey if her book is released on McCain’s inauguration day. Because she has a financial interest in the outcome of the election, she should disclose that to the audience before the debate begins.

    Third: The relevant question is not whether there is a conflict, but whether she, having properly disclosed it, can rise above it and do a professional, unbiased job at the debate. I think she probably can, based in large part on the way she handled the 2004 vice presidential debate. So does John McCain:

    Sen. John McCain says he is confident PBS reporter Gwen Ifill will “do a totally objective job” moderating Thursday’s vice presidential debate despite authoring a new book that is reportedly favorable toward Sen. Barack Obama.

    Asked during an interview Wednesday with Fox’s Carl Cameron whether Ifill should excuse herself as the debate moderator, McCain acknowledged the potential conflict of interest but expressed confidence in the longtime journalist.

    “I think that Gwen Ifill is a professional and I think that she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional,” McCain said during an interview at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. “Does this help…if she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not. But I have confidence that Gwen Ifill will do a professional job and I have that confidence.”

    Folks will decide for themselves if she actually showed bias. Let the debate proceed, but with the disclosure, so people have a fair basis to make up their own minds.

  23. No one can name anyone who is unbiased, because no one is. But that isn’t the point. Somehow, mentioning that she was writing a book that includes “The Obama Age” in the title somehow eluded whatever sense of ethics she has while being selected. And then she wonders if it is racism because no one asked Lou Cannon about doing a book on Reagan?. Goodness, me. Logic is obviously not her strong point. No one is saying she can’t write a book about whatever she wants but they are asking whether she can be “objective” in the interview given her obvious lean toward Obama and her financial interest in her book. Believe it or not, not everything is about race.

    Anyway, I think she can do the interview objectively, but now the focus is all on her performance and not on Palin’s. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. Was it intentional? I don’t know.

  24. Alex Knapp says:

    Beldar,

    I’m with you. The disclosure, obviously, was a must. From everything I can see, the McCain camp was aware of this and, as you point out, McCain himself does not think she should withdraw. Now, had this been a brand new revelation, that would have been something else.

  25. Matt says:

    My question is why is your reading comprehension so poor that you didn’t catch the fact that the book won’t be released until “about the same time the next president takes the oath of office.”

    Wow we have the same question it seems as Legion’s post just above yours clearly shows it’s been known for a while 😛