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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Is Veep debate moderator Gwen Ifill biased?

Disclose the book, but let viewers decide if there's any real bias. So I advise Gwen Ifill in my latest guest post at HughHewitt.com.


[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]

(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)

Michelle Malkin performs a valuable service by alerting us (here, here, and here) that vice presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS' NewsHour program has an upcoming book, due to be released at about the time the next president is inaugurated, entitled Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. As Michelle points out, Ms. Ifill's financial interest in the success of the book might reasonably be thought to be linked to its subject's success in the general election.

Therefore, if for no other reason than the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, Gwen Ifill should publicly disclose her book's impending release and title to the entire nation at the very beginning of tomorrow night's debate. To do anything less would be unethical. (And the disclosure itself is unlikely to do Ms. Ifill any harm; rather, it may actually pump her pre-release sales.)

As for Michelle's underlying charge that Ms. Ifill is in the proverbial (and very crowded) tank for Obama, that is something about which you should make up your own mind. But I do have a few thoughts to share on that subject.

I think it's very, very likely that Ms. Ifill is extremely sympathetic to the Obama candidacy, and that he's likely to get her vote if she votes (and she has every right to; I don't hold that journalists ought to recuse themselves from casting personal votes). That an anchor for PBS and a member in excellent standing of the mainstream media should be to the left of center in her personal politics is, at this stage, very much a "dog bites man" story.

The issue, however, is whether Ms. Ifill can successfully put aside her bias in her performance of her role as debate moderator. What's been so dreadful this election season in watching figures like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann beclown themselves repeatedly as shills for Obama is that they're not even making any effort to hide their biases, much less to rein them in and be fair.

[# More #] Part of my (and most courtroom lawyers') standard spiel as we're selecting juries has to do with bias and prejudice. "We each come to the courthouse today," I say, "with a unique set of life experiences, from which we've drawn our own sets of beliefs and expectations, and through which we filter our new experiences, too."

And thus, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is: "Yes, of course Gwen Ifill is biased. We all are biased toward or against something."

I tell prospective jurors that at several points during the trial, however, the judge will caution them that the law requires them to set aside their personal biases and prejudices, and to instead decide the case based only upon the testimony and exhibits received into evidence. So the question during jury selection, I explain, becomes whether anyone has a bias or prejudice relating to the issues in the case which is so strong that despite the prospective juror's best efforts, he or she won't be able to put that bias or prejudice aside in receiving and weighing the evidence.

Some people won't answer that question honestly — and one of my jobs as a lawyer is to try to make accurate predictions as to who those people are, for use in deciding how to spend my peremptory strikes — but a remarkable number of prospective jurors do answer it honestly when they have a strong bias or prejudice. Often, they end up getting themselves excused "for cause" upon confessing the depth of their biases in further (hopefully gentle and respectful) questioning. Vastly larger numbers of jurors, though, sincerely believe that they can set aside their biases and prejudices and decide the case based solely on the evidence. Their ability to actually do so is one reason for my abiding faith, after nearly three decades of practicing in it, for the American jury system as an imperfect but essential instrument of dispassionate justice.

I recently re-read the debate transcript from 2004, in which Gwen Ifill moderated the debate between vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and John Edwards. Were I to guess, my guess would be that Ms. Ifill personally preferred the Kerry-Edwards ticket to the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004, although I can't make any particularly meaningful guess about the intensity of that preference. Regardless, however, I didn't see any clear evidence, or even a strong suggestion, of bias in the selection and phrasing of either Ms. Ifill's initial questions or her follow-up questions in 2004. To me, that indicates that she was making a conscious — and successful — effort to separate her own personal biases and prejudices from her job performance. (The example Michelle quotes an emailer as citing from 2004, in which Ms. Ifill limited Vice President Cheney to a 30-second response after Mr. Edwards had gone on a rant about Mr. Cheney and Halliburton, came after a question from Ms. Ifill to Mr. Cheney about Halliburton in which he'd had two minutes to respond, giving him more time overall on the topic than Mr. Edwards had had. The original question was tough but fair, and the refusal to deviate from the format's time limits was by no means a sign of bias.)

If, this time, Ms. Ifill's performance is biased toward Joe Biden and against Sarah Palin, the likelihood of that being obvious to the general public is roughly proportional to the degree of bias shown. If the question asked is, "Gov. Palin, as a Bible-thumping, breeder-hick from the sticks, do you think you can find a pumpkin truck that will actually bring you to Washington?" then there's not likely to be much harm done. The risk, rather, comes from subtle forms of bias that may be less obvious but more harmful — false or questionable presumptions built into the premises of questions, for example, or selection of questions in a way skewed to focus more on one candidate's presumed weaknesses than the other's. Still, the members of the voting public — assisted or not, as they choose, with the opinions of pundits — can draw their own conclusions about those matters, too. And certainly the candidates have some tools at their disposal to expose subtle bias and fight against it — as by challenging the premises of questions.

So I'm going to be alert to signs in this debate that the moderator may be exhibiting signs of bias — as I hope I'm alert in all such important debates. You should be too. I, for one, will try to set aside my pre-existing impression that Ms. Ifill is probably an Obama-Biden supporter and considerably to the left of center in her own politics, and I'll try my best to judge her performance on the basis of what actually happens tomorrow night. As a self-acknowledged and obvious fan of Gov. Palin's, I have my own biases to contend with too, which in addition to acknowledging, I must try to account for in my punditry if I want my opinions to have any usefulness and credibility.

To us all, then, I say: Good luck, and let's do our respective bests!


UPDATE (Thu Oct 1 @ 7:25 p.m. CST): Here's John McCain's reaction (ellipsis in original):

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.”

— Beldar

Posted by Beldar at 10:50 AM in 2008 Election, Books, Mainstream Media, McCain, Obama, Palin, Politics (2008) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Is Veep debate moderator Gwen Ifill biased? and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Carol Herman made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 11:31:58 AM | Permalink

Do bears crap in the woods?

By the way, Ifil's not the problem. She's like Obrah. TV is just TV. A compartmentalized and shrinking venue.

If Palin does well on Thursday? Expect Biden to quit. And, Hillary to step in.

As to the BAIL OUT ... It's apparent the same theives are still pushing this package; now loaded with more pork than before.

Only thing it's a FAILED BILL. And, you can't just vote to Amend it in the Senate! Nor can the "senate" start an appropriations bill. This starts in the HOUSE.

Oy. Will this be going to the bench warmers on the Supremes? Will Bush have come in, in 2000 with no popularity to speak of ... And, will he toodle back to Texas on the same track?

This is a mess only because republicans lack enough spine. (Or? Behind the scenes Mike Spence has become the real leader of the HOUSE. And, maybe, he can sue when the senate Amends?)

(2) Pat Hickey made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 12:35:14 PM | Permalink

Stacked or not - well, Palin is nicely stacked, to begin with, but that is neither here, nor there, except to me. . . .sorry, . . .Governor Palin will do great and I hope that if Ms. Ifill gets too cute by half , as she is wont to do, that the Governor gives her a Wasilla Kiss*.

* ( cousin to the Dublin kiss - where one snaps his/her forehead into the bridge of the nose of an idiot/malefactor)

(3) A.W. made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 12:54:06 PM | Permalink

Imho, Palin will do great if she is allowed to be herself. Which doesn't, contrary to charles krauthammer, mean she shouldn't learn alot about foreign policy if she hasn't already.

But as as the conflict of interest... the woman has in essence placed a massive bet on the outcome of the race. She has not only written a book that will enjoy more success if he wins, but because of the time of its publication, it might not enjoy ANY substantial success if he loses.

I don't know if she can be bought that cheaply, but for that alone she should be bounced from the moderator position. Have Lehrer come back in. he did a good enough job last time.

Btw, it should be noted that the left can now rightly claim she was biased agianst them too. Its a familiar argument for lawyers to say there is not only a threat of her trying to throw the election to Obama, but also a danger that she would now feel a desire to hurt the democrat and hard, just to prove to everyone how unbiased she is.

(4) Beldar made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 1:12:21 PM | Permalink

A.W., it's a good point, but I think the Dems will probably accept the risk that Ifill might overcompensate.

(5) cwr made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 1:19:28 PM | Permalink

Will the debate format allow Palin to work in her knowledge of the energy business? So far the GOP ticket hasn't mentioned that the 20 billion bbls of oil offshore and the 20 billion bbls in ANWR would be worth $4 trillion at today's prices. The severance taxes, gov't royalties and corp income taxes from that would easily pay for the "Wall Street bailout."

(6) judy london made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 4:03:55 PM | Permalink

In Tampa, Florida, I'm engaging strangers at supermarkets, Dr.'s offices, etc. anywhere, and asking if they know who they're voting for. Nine out of 10 initially say "NO." But after mentioning why I'm supporting McCain, 9 of those 10 reveal their own intense support for McCain. Try it, folks. People out there are intimidated by the Obama campaign. They're eager to discuss their support for McCain, they eager for reinforcement. Embolden them to vote their mind. Citizen to citizen, grass roots outreach. Engage strangers at every opportunity. Person to person. It works!

(7) jbenson2 made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 5:02:51 PM | Permalink

During the debate, Palin needs to preface every answer with the following:
"Now, Ms. Ifil, I don't know if you cover this topic in your book on Senator Obama that is set to be released in January on Inauguration Day, but…."

Unfortunate, I have a feeling it will turn out more like this:

Moderator Ifill:
Senator Biden, what is your position on the limited amount of Federal aid and financial support to union members in Scranton, Pennsylvania?

Senator Biden:
Blah, blah, blah.

Moderator Ifill:
Mayor Palin, what is your position on the remarkable and ongoing success of the local community organizers in Salihorsk, Belarus as mentioned on Page 153, paragraph 2 of my new book?

(8) RB made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 8:11:26 PM | Permalink

Re: Your guest post on Hewitt about Palin on Hannity >>>
Guaranteed: Her very sensible appeal to personal responsibility will shortly become an Obama campaign ad claiming that "in typical rich GOP fashion, they're blaming the little guy."

(9) A.W. made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 10:10:09 PM | Permalink


I am sure the Obama campaign won't complain. Lunatic lefties, not so much, but what can anyone do about them?

This is exactly like as if the refs in baseball game had bet $1 million on the outcome. It is as crooked as it comes. She should immediately step down.

Btw, Greta had an interesting insight on the issue which was to point out that lawyer were uniquely insenced about this, because we see it through the lens of our own stringent conflict of interest rules. I think that is exactly correct. But i also think those rules are exactly right.

(10) Carol Herman made the following comment | Oct 1, 2008 10:15:33 PM | Permalink

Today, McCain voted YES on the pork filled "bail out" ... and, the only reason he did so is that he wants to appear to democrats as "one of them!"

He has no interest in his conservative base; figuring "where can they go?"

It's the same with banks. If they hold back lending money now? No one else will.

David Drier is my HOUSE rep. And, he calls constitutents, doing these "conference calls." So, when I got one tonight, I held on ... and heard about ten other calls, maybe more, before mine.

One man asked him why he had said yes to the bailout, when he could have gone to Google and Microsoft, and had congress offering them the chances to become bankers. You'd add new blood into the system. And, you wouldn't be forcing Americans to swallow this TOXIC waste of a mortgage program.

Do you want me to guess? What we've watched is ALL POLITICAL! It took guts! Pelosi, in particular, staked out the democratic position. And, because the republicans locked in ... the republicans are gonna lose this election.

So, not only is Bush unpopular. He has managed to affect the November 4th election. And, even though I make fun of the MSM ... They wanted to succeed.

And, the dopes? Republicans who thought they could play this "both ways."

McCain? He's hoping democrats who "wouldn't vote for a black man," decide to vote for him.

He may yet wake up on 11/5 more surprised than he was when he "lost his airplane" over Vietnam.

What can ya do?

In the future, conservatives are going to have to learn they need to have positions that don't chase mainstream voters away. That talent hasn't been present for quite some time, now.

It's okay. If the republicans get left out in the cold? They'll have more than a dozen years, ahead, to figure it all out.

Anybody else, during the primaries, would have made a better candidate, today.

(11) Mike Devx made the following comment | Oct 2, 2008 2:37:51 AM | Permalink

How about this one:
Despite the protestations of [Gwen Ifill's] colleagues that she will be fair, Ifill has appeared on numerous radio and TV talk shows over the past several months to cash in on her access to the Obama campaign. She recently penned a fawning cover story on the Obamas for Essence magazine that earned much buzz. The title? “The Obamas: Portrait of an American Family.”

(Via Michelle Malkin)

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