Ifill’s Vanishing Conflict of Interest
Because PBS commentator Gwen Ifill managed to serve as the moderator for the Vice-Presidential debates without any obvious bias surfacing, the controversy over her blatant, tardily disclosed, and serious conflict of interest has vanished without a trace. It shouldn’t. What Ifill did, the fact that she and of many of her fellow journalists dismissed it, and the ethically ignorant way her misconduct was analyzed is both instructive and cause for alarm. The Scoreboard has long suspected that journalistic ethics had deteriorated from aspirational to self-serving to mythical. That suspicion, thanks to the Ifill episode, is nearing conviction.
To summarize, Ifill confirmed on the day before the scheduled debate (and long after she had been chosen as moderator) that she is writing a book entitled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama" that is scheduled to be published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House, on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009. Conservative blogs had begun trumpeting the book as a clear conflict of interest that made Ifill, in essence, a pro-Obama partisan. Mention of the book had appeared in various publications, including Time Magazine, earlier in the year, but debate organizers revealed that they were not aware of it and Ifill had not flagged it.
Immediately, many journalists, including Ifill, attempted to pigeon-hole the issue as right-wing hysteria. “I’ve got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I’m not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation,” Ifill said. “The proof is in the pudding. They can watch the debate tomorrow night and make their own decisions about whether or not I’ve done my job.”
Wrong. The proof isn’t “in the pudding.” If you learn your pudding chef has a possible motivation to poison the pudding, do you say, “Well, let’s wait and see if anyone who eats it gets sick?” When a supposedly impartial judge has a conflict that calls into question that impartiality, the response isn’t, “he’s a professional,” or “let’s see how he rules.” The proper response is, “This situation calls into question the fairness of the proceedings and an appearance of potential bias. Let’s find a new judge who doesn’t raise these suspicions!”
That is Conflicts of Interest 101. Is Ifill’s book a pro-Obama book? Sure sounds like it, based on the title. Is that book likely to have much better sales if Obama wins? Of course. Will that result enhance Ifill’s income and reputation? Is there any question? So is she a truly disinterested, impartial participant in an event that will play a part in deciding the election?
And that means that she has an irresolvable conflict that is not addressed by her reputation or past history of fairness. It is this fact that the various defenders missed, raising the suspicion that they wouldn’t recognize a conflict of interest if it laid an egg on their heads. Ifill “did a great job” moderating a previous debate, said one member of the debate Commission. And how does that address the special conflict she faces in this debate, may we ask? It doesn’t. Nobody, including Ifill, could say how her upcoming book would affect her performance. It may have caused her to pull her punches, and not ask as tough questions of Obama’s running mate. Or, aware of how the book raised suspicions of her impartiality, the conflict may have caused Ifill to be tougher on Senator Biden that she ordinarily would have been. Neither result would have been fair. And we will never know how she would have performed if the conflict hadn’t existed. That’s the problem with appearances of bias. It erodes belief and trust.
The correct way the matter should have been handled was, first, for Ifill to disclose her interest in book before she was designated as the moderator. She could not assume the debate commission knew about the book; it was her responsibility to make sure they knew. Then the commission should have informed both campaigns in a timely fashion and sought their assent to and waiver of Ifill’s conflict. My guess is that the commission would not have received such a waiver from the McCain camp, and that would have required finding a different moderator.
One Ifill was named, having failed to properly inform the interested parties, no waiver was possible. Both McCain and Palin were trapped, and had to make the appropriate statements about how “fair” and professional Ifill was, because to publicly object to her continuing as moderator would have been condemned as everything from petty to racist. The commission, having failed its own vetting process, aided and abetted by Ifill’s appalling lack of candor, should have replaced her.
It did not. And now we should know what “impartial” means to our supposedly ethical and fair journalists.
Whatever they want it to mean.