[Posted by Karl]
The blogosphere is abuzz with the story that Vice-Presidential debate “moderator” Gwen Ifill has a book on “The Age of Obama” due for publication on Inauguration Day. It is a story that goes beyond mere questions of bias, raising the issue of a financial conflict of interest.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics provides that journos should “[a]void conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” The Radio-Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states that “Professional electronic journalists should present the news with integrity and decency, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest.” PBS, which employs Ms. Ifill, has in place Editorial Standards and Policies listing “real or perceived conflicts of interest” as unprofessional conduct.
In the MSM, a few talking heads discussed the issue on cable after it became the top headline on the Drudge Report.
But Washington Post media crtitic Howard Kurtz had no criticism at all, going so far as to quote PBS flack Anne Bell declaring it “a non-issue” without any mention of PBS’s own policies. At the Pittsbugh Post-Gazette, Timothy McNulty dismisses it as a conservative talking point, adding that Ifill is “a terrific person and journalist.” The Tribune Corp’s Frank James strikes the same tone, as though calling someone a professional excuses everyone from the obligation to look at whether Ifill is in this instance meeting the traditional standards of professionalism in journalism. Newsday’s John Riley at least acknowledged the issue, as did The Hotline On Call, but — like the others (including the New York Times Caucus blog)– as a question of objectivity; neither makes reference to the apparent financial conflict of interest.
At the L.A. Times, Don Frederick concedes that “[p]resumably, an Obama victory in November would improve the book’s marketability,” but then dismisses the concern because “it’s the rare political tome that even comes close to best-selling status.” By the same logic, Frederick would be okay with a bribe-taking judge, so long as it was a small bribe. Or an NFL referee betting on games he is overseeeing, so long as they are not big bets.
This not merely a question of bias. It is not even a question of political self-interest, as the McCain campaign could benefit from a compromised debate moderator. It is a question of ethics, and plenty of Ifill’s colleagues in the media seem determined to look the other way.
Follow-up: Insta-lanche! Subsequently, the Perfesser asks, “Moderating a debate is something that is frequently done by journalists, but is it really journalism?” I would first answer that question with another: “Are presidential debates really debates, or more like joint press conferences?” Second, as a historical matter, the GOP signed onto the idea of a Commission on Presidential Debates primarily to be rid of involvement from the biased (then and now) League of Women Voters, thereby getting rid of questioners like Elizabeth Drew, former JFK speechwriter/Nixon enemy Joseph Kraft. syndicated columnist Daniel Greenberg, not to mention Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke. The Commission has always employed “non-opinion” journalists, precisely to avoid questions of neutrality. And as noted in the initial post, the problem here is not even the more subjective issue of political bias, but the more objective problem of having a financial stake in the outcome.
The Politico’s Michael Calderone wants to get it, but can’t help himself:
I think Malkin and other critics have a right to raise questions about whether Ifill should be moderating, but at the same time, it’s not as if the veteran PBS journalist has been keeping the book under wraps until now. It’s also a logical question to ask whether an Obama book would sell better or worse depending on the outcome of the election. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that if Obama’s sworn in on the Jan. 20 pub date, a book with “Obama” in the title will sell more copies.
Legitimate questions, indeed. So why is this coming up less than 36 hours before Palin and Biden hit the stage?
A: Because MSM folks like Calderone fell down on the job.
HotAir’s Ed Morrissey notes that Ifill did not disclose her financial interest to the Commission, and asks when “The Age of Edwards” ended.
Finally, Gwen Ifill’s reaction is to ignore the financial issue and play the race card, which is another interesting insight into her ethics.