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PBS Ombudsman

The Doctrine of No Surprises

One of the most useful lessons I learned during many years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post was what we sometimes called "the doctrine of no surprises." At other times, it was described in harsher terms. The idea, basically, is that in discussions between a reporter and editor, or among editors making decisions on stories, nothing pertinent is left unsaid; no fact or special circumstance that was known — or important question that should have been asked but wasn't — would pop up the morning after the story was published and unpleasantly surprise the top editors. It didn't always work. But it is the right culture for a newsroom.

I've been thinking about this doctrine during the past two days as a fast-moving dispute erupted, first on conservative Web sites and then escalating to talk radio, cable news, broadcast television and the newspapers. At issue were challenges raised mostly by several conservative commentators aimed at Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS's Washington Week program and senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and, most pertinently, the moderator for tonight's high-stakes debate between Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden and Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

The focus is on a book that Ifill is writing, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," and that is scheduled to be published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House, on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009. The headline on the initial story on World Net Daily reads: "VP debate moderator Ifill releasing pro-Obama book." Collectively, the accusations by her critics are that that Ifill and the book are pro-Obama, that she is not a non-partisan moderator for the debate, and that she has a self-interest in that her book sales will be boosted by an Obama victory.

The Doctrine Was Missing in Action

I don't agree with that, and I'll explain why. But I do think that a "no surprises doctrine" should have been employed in this case. The bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates that selected the moderators for the presidential and vice-presidential debates failed to ask questions — anything new that we should know? — that might have led to discussions about the forthcoming book, and Ifill failed to bring it up with the Commission. Here, too, there are reasons that sound reasonable as to why this didn't come up. But it should have, and the Commission and the candidates then would have had time well before the debate to raise any doubts that they had. It is crucial not to let anything diminish the credibility of these events. Once the controversy erupted, the Commission also failed to address it promptly and publicly, something that fed the escalation of the dispute on the eve of the debate.

PBS, by the way, is not really involved in this. It is the Commission that selects the moderators. But thousands of people have called and e-mailed me and PBS in the past 36 hours, apparently spurred on by some of the critical Web sites and commentary. Despite this, PBS has also had no public comment about this controversy aside from a one-liner from a NewsHour spokesperson who told the Post, "The book has been out there and discussed for months. It's a non-issue." Well, it's not a non-issue to those callers and e-mailers, and some more detailed explanation was in order, in my view. Ifill doesn't actually work for PBS. She works for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.

PBS has, however, been responding to phone calls with the following message:

"The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which sponsors and produces debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates, chose Ms. Ifill as moderator based on her credentials and long-standing track record as an outstanding reporter. This is the second time the Commission has asked Ms. Ifill to moderate the Vice Presidential debates; she served in this same role during the 2004 election. When asked about Ms. Ifill's upcoming book, the Commission's Co-Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. stated, 'She's a woman of impeccable integrity. This won't interfere any way with her being a fair and objective moderator.'"

Reacting to critics who have cast doubt on Ifill, her journalistic peers and many politicians have offered numerous testimonials to her reportorial skills and non-partisan approach to coverage. The most important came from Sen. John McCain and Palin.

McCain told Fox News: "I think Gwen Ifill is a professional and I think she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional." He then added this: "Does this help . . . if she has written a book that's favorable to Sen. Obama? Probably not. But I have confidence that Gwen Ifill will do a professional job."

Palin said on Fox: "I'm not going to let it be a concern." She said, "That just makes us work harder. It makes us want to communicate even clearer and more profoundly with the electorate, letting them know what the contrasts are between these two tickets."*

On Content and Timing

Here's some context to some of the comments that have been made and the timing of this controversy.

McCain and others have talked about a book favorable to Obama. Ifill points out that the book isn't even completed, and the chapter on Obama has not been written. So nobody knows what this book is going to say about him. Ifill's book is actually a natural, something that some good reporter and observer was going to write and she has been in an excellent position to do so. It is a broad theme about the emergence of a new generation of African American leaders who have benefited especially from the civil rights struggle that took place a generation ago.

In an essay in Time magazine on Aug. 21, Ifill talked about her book and its theme. Obama, she wrote, "is just one member of a generation of political leaders faced with a new task: honoring the contributions of their forebears without alienating the broader, multiracial audiences they need to win. I've spent part of the past year tracking dozens of these rising stars, and have concluded that anyone who thinks Obama is unique is not paying attention." The book deals with many young black politicians and office holders around the country.

The Time essay actually appeared after the debate Commission announced, on Aug. 5, its selection of PBS's Jim Lehrer, NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Bob Schieffer for the three presidential debates, and Ifill for tonight's vice-presidential meeting. But the book has been listed on Amazon.com since well before the Commission decision. Ifill refers to it in her biography that appears on the Washington Week Web site. The Associated Press referred to the book in a story about another PBS program host, Tavis Smiley, that appeared on July 23. And Ifill talked about the book in a Sept. 4 profile of her in The Washington Post.

So the book has not been a secret, although the McCain campaign is reported to have said that this week's Web stories were the first they knew of it. It is plausible that the campaign junkies might have missed these references. But for those who do scrutinize every bit of press coverage, there certainly would have been plenty of time and opportunities for critics to raise this issue more than 36 hours ahead of the debate, and for the Commission to ask the McCain campaign if they had any problem with this.

The Commission is headed by co-chairmen Paul G. Kirk Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. I managed to reach Fahrenkopf by phone late on Wednesday, who acknowledged that the forthcoming book did not come up in the Commission's considerations, that Ifill didn't bring it up and that the Commission wasn't upset by that. "We make the selections" and tell the one selected that "the Commission would like you to moderate. We know who we were choosing and I can assure you that if we had known (about the book) it would not have made a darn bit of difference to me or anyone else. We know all these people. They have tremendous integrity." Referring to the vice-presidential debate four years ago that Ifill also moderated, he said she "did a great job in the previous debate."

In the Crosshairs

Anyone who appears regularly on the five-nights-a-week NewsHour will come into a certain amount of criticism from some viewers. I have written about Ifill a number of times, including some critical references. Most recently, she was the focus of attention in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention when several viewers said they detected anti-Palin bias in Ifill's facial expression, a criticism I disagreed with.

Ifill and I were colleagues when she was a reporter at The Washington Post for several years during the late 1980s. But we were on different staffs. I'm actually a lot more familiar with her work on PBS because it is more my business these days, and I rate her highly as a smart, experienced, quick-thinking and tough-minded interviewer. And no reporter under the kind of intense scrutiny that comes with moderating a vice-presidential debate in perhaps the most remarkable and tension-filled campaign in memory has anything to gain by appearing partisan. So I would agree with McCain's expressed sense of confidence in Ifill's professionalism.

But this book project should have been surfaced by the Commission or Ifill much earlier to make a reasoned and "no surprises" decision in plenty of time to be discussed and explained, to have potential public perceptions considered, and to be checked with the candidates.

*Correction: I made an error transcribing a quotation by Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin. The mistake made her comment grammatically incorrect. The word "contrast" should have been plural. It has now been corrected.

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