The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
October 10, 2008
As sometimes happens in the week-by-week life of an ombudsman, if you defend — or are perceived to be defending — someone who is under attack by critics, then the fire turns on you the following week. So a good chunk of this week's very long mailbag is from readers who took issue with the views I expressed last week about the choice of Gwen Ifill as moderator of the recent vice-presidential debate.
Ifill is the host of PBS's Washington Week and a senior correspondent of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She was chosen by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates as moderator of the vice-presidential debate four years ago and the Commission selected her again on Aug. 5 of this year. PBS has nothing to do with the selection process. Despite whatever controversies have come to surround the choice of individual moderators, the selection of Lehrer — who also was a moderator of the '04 presidential debates — and Ifill to preside again over two of the four debates, I think, does reflect a substantial and continuing degree of trust among the public for PBS's fairness in presenting the news.
But Ifill's credentials had changed between the '04 and '08 debates. She is in the process of writing a book about the rise of a new generation of black politicians. Its title is "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," and its publication date is Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009. The book was no secret. It was described in an essay she wrote in Time magazine on Aug. 21 and referred to in other press reports.
Even so, you can't blame people for not knowing about someone's forthcoming book project. On the other hand, you can blame the Commission for not asking Ifill, back in August, if anything new was going on that they should know about, and you can blame Ifill for not telling them. That's what I wrote last week, as part of a fuller discussion about the situation, in a column that was written and posted just a few hours before the actual debate.
Ifill says the book is not finished and that it will be about a lot more than Obama. Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the Commission, told me last week that "it would not have made a darn bit of difference to me or anyone else" if the Commission had known about the book contract at the time of the selection.
The book issue, which surely must have been known for some time to those who scrutinize such potential political time-bombs, exploded on the Web — initially on a conservative news Web site — and on television in the days just before the debate took place last Thursday night. So the timing seemed odd.
But the Questions Are Legitimate
On the other hand, the questions of whether Ifill should have withdrawn or recused herself at some point, or whether the Commission should have looked for someone else, are legitimate ones. Perception of bias, even if bias isn't there, is always a concern with such events. I also wrote in my column that, "It is crucial not to let anything diminish the credibility of these events."
In the end, I wrote that this book project "should have been surfaced by the Commission or Ifill much earlier to make a reasoned . . . decision in plenty of time to be discussed and explained, to have potential public perceptions considered, and to be checked with the candidates." But I stopped short of making a judgment about whether Ifill now, just hours before the debate, should withdraw or be withdrawn and I didn't say whether I thought this was a conflict of interest or whether the perception of such a conflict merited withdrawal.
I didn't come to such conclusions because of my sense of Ifill's integrity as a journalist, because there is no gain for any journalist under that kind of spotlight to appear partisan, and because the book is both a natural for her to write and its contents are not known. Sen. McCain, in his first comments about the situation the day before the debate, also testified to Ifill's professionalism and objectivity and said she would do a good job, although adding that it probably didn't help to have "written a book that's favorable to Senator Obama." Yet the book isn't finished, the Obama chapter hasn't been written and nobody knows for sure that it will be favorable.
Still, the perception problem is certainly real for some people, and not just partisans, and if I were a member of the Commission and knew about the book back in August, I like to think it would have at least been a concern to me that merited discussion and an early, agreed-upon decision by all parties.
What follows are three groups of letters. The first group catches up with the most recent event, the presidential town hall meeting on Tuesday night, Oct. 7, in which viewers complain about the post-debate analysis on PBS by former Republican and Democratic presidential speechwriters. Those who wrote said these guests appeared totally predictable and useless to them, an assessment I would generally agree with. Then come letters about Ifill's performance in the earlier vice-presidential debate on Oct. 2, and finally a long collection of critical letters about last week's pre-debate ombudsman's column about the Ifill/book controversy.
Here Are the Letters
PBS offers the most intelligent news coverage on television; thus I have relied on PBS for broadcast and analysis of all of the debates. Last night's analysis was very disappointing. The choice of Terry Edmonds and Michael Gerson as commentators was shockingly inconsistent with PBS's normally balanced coverage. Their comments were strongly partisan to the point of predictability. I found them to be not only unhelpful, but actually intrusive. I hope this was a momentary lapse of judgment on PBS's part and that we may look forward to more even-handed commentary following the next debate.
Douglas Himes, Nashville, TN
One of the primary reasons I listen to the debates on PBS is that you have not had partisan individuals on after the debates to give analysis. Tonight you had two speechwriters (one from each camp) on the NewsHour and a senior advisor to Senator Obama on Charlie Rose. We just spent 90 minutes listening to what the candidates had to say. We don't need partisan supporters to restate everything which is precisely what all of them did. It is a waste of time. I listen to your shows to learn from the people you bring in to do the analysis. I realize many of them have definite political leanings (e.g. Brooks and Shields), but I trust them to at least attempt to be objective. The three partisans I mentioned above made no such attempt and add nothing worthwhile to the discussion. If that is the direction you are headed in, I will have to turn off the TV and start listening to the debates on NPR.
I enjoyed watching the second presidential debate tonight on PBS. However, I was appalled to listen to the two speech writers in the post-debate commentary. If I wanted to listen to someone try to convince you his candidate won the debate regardless of the actual content, I'd listen to another network. I watch PBS for objective analysis, not partisan soap-box speeches. Please bring back the historians.
On Ifill's Performance
Gwen Ifill did an excellent job as moderator. I think she had an extremely difficult task going in based on the unwarranted negative publicity regarding her alleged bias. We witnessed a certain amount of disrespect on the part of Palin by referring to Gwen Ifill as "moderator" in the same sentence she said she will not be answering the questions. Ms. Ifill handled the situation PERFECTLY by moving on and asking question after question and leaving it up to Palin to answer or NOT. Yes, part of me wanted to see Palin grilled but anything more could have resulted in Ms. Ifill being part of the story. At the end of the debate it was clear Palin had a rehearsed line about the "mainstream media" picking on her. Her case was WEAK considering Gwen Ifill's overall fairness. Gwen Ifill, you are a CLASS ACT. Great job as always.
Bill H. Logansport, IN
I thought the real loser in the vice-presidential debates was the American people for the simple reason that Gwen Ifill lobbed soft-ball, uninteresting, generic questions to the candidates and failed to draw them out in such a way as the public could hear what they thought, how they might behave, and what was the essence of their personalities sufficient to decide which might be the better candidate. Ms. Ifill's performance as a moderator was non-probative and woefully inadequate.
Anderson Ferrell, New York City, NY
If there are better examples of quality moderators I have not seen them. Jim and Gwen conducted the most fair and balanced debates in a long time. The questions were on target and allowed me to see the four candidates just a bit better, even after the long campaign trail. Thanks PBS!
James Packer, Stuart, FL
My wife and I have long thought that Gwen Ifill is an excellent journalist, but we were deeply disappointed by her performance as moderator of the vice-presidential debate last night. Her questions were bland at best and did not focus intently on critical issues that differentiate the two candidates. In those few instances when she asked a pertinent question she simply let Palin avoid answering by shifting the topic to Republican campaign talking points. It seems that Ms. Ifill over-compensated for irresponsible criticism of her book, and the constant Republican mantra alleging "unfair" treatment of Palin by the media. We hope that she will quickly return to the level of excellence that has been her hallmark for many years.
Robert Gonter, Lexington, VA
Book or no book, I was very disappointed with Gwen Ifill's slow-pitch softball questions which allowed Palin to recite her notes and avoid further embarrassment for herself and her party. As one analyst put it "She (Palin) did a good job answering her own questions."
William Conrad, Jacksonville, FL
The unintentional consequence of the book controversy was the restraint I felt Ms. Ifill used during the debate. She did not follow up when Gov. Palin failed to answer questions directly.
Jane Verity, Wildwood, MO
I was disappointed and very angry that Ms. Ifill allowed Palin to get away with not answering the questions posed to her. When Palin said, "May I say something about Afghanistan?" the answer should have been a firm, "Please stick to the topic raised by this question." The format of the debate was already favoring Palin's ignorance, allowing her to answer with memorized bullet points — Ms. Ifill should NOT have allowed her to avoid the questions. I really feel that Ms. Ifill did not perform her job adequately. If that was in a misguided effort to appear unbiased, it was wrong.
All day I have been telling people that, in my opinion, the real winner of last night's debate was Gwen Ifill. Ifill put to rest — hopefully forever — the belief that the only people qualified to moderate a national debate were old, white men. Ifill was the best moderator in recent memory. Thanks, Gwen, and congratulations! In a campaign which threatens to set back serious women a generation or more, you proved they are here to stay. From this old, white male, thank God!
Michael Pennotti, River Edge, NJ
Compliments to both Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill for the wonderful job they did in moderating the two debates. They were both fair and thorough. Gwen could have been more tough on the candidates with some follow-up questions, but under the circumstances that preceded the debate, she did what she had to do.
I will continue to support PBS as Gwen Ifill did a terrific job as the VP Debate monitor. She did not appear to be biased toward either candidate and it was one of the best interview/debates I've seen yet.
Laurie Wenner, Roswell, NM
Gwen Ifill has now "blown" two debates with her timid style, with overly deferential questioning of V.P. Cheney during the last campaign and her non-questioning of Sarah Palin this time. When is PBS going to get wise and select another moderator for these critical debates?
Many people, including myself, were very disappointed about the VP debate moderated by Gwen Ifill. It was just a Q&A session (that a high school student could have read) rather than a debate. Because of her conflicts of interest, Gwen was afraid to ask follow-up tough questions.
Sam Silva, Edison, NJ
Regarding the Vice-Presidential debate: It is the job of a Moderator to ask questions of the candidates. If a candidate says, in response to a particular question, "I don't want to argue about that . . . Instead, I would like to talk about . . ." It is the Moderator's responsibility to keep that candidate on track. A Vice-Presidential Debate Is Not A Television Interview. When Sarah Palin refused to speak about Gay Rights, she refused to answer a direct question from Gwen Ifill. When Ifill neglected to demand that Palin answer the Gay Rights question, she failed the American People. We deserve to know — we MUST know exactly where Gov. Palin stands on issues as important as this. I say this as a gay citizen of this country.
Cameron Folmar, Astoria, NY
On Last Week's Ombudsman's Column
I was one of the thousands to send a critical e-mail message to you yesterday (last Friday) and want to thank you for your "explanation" of the controversy. My position however remains the same . . . in this super-charged Red/Blue political environment, ALL perceived or potential conflicts need to be identified early on and squashed out. With that, I am highly critical of the Commission, Ms. Ifill AND PBS.
Brad Fisher, Richland, WA
Thank you for your discussion of this, but I have found a trend in your monologues — you do flood it with words and some thoughtfulness, Mr. Getler, but the conclusions are usually the same. No harm no foul. Wrong. Just because you "objectively" discuss a subject does not an ombudsman make. Ms. Ifill, who probably is a decent journalist, of the rapidly dwindling number, still should not have been the moderator.
The questions about Gwen Ifill are invalid in some respects and valid in others. To question her integrity is invalid and unrelated to the question at hand. The ethical question, however, related to possible bias cannot be dismissed if PBS cares at all about public confidence. To say that Ifill does not work for PBS is moot and I think dismissive of public concern.
John Cox, Grass Valley, CA
Good Job Mike at minding the store — with Gwen in the tank for Obama you have lost any measure of credibility with me and the public.
Steve Johnson, Luling, LA
The Ifill story is just one more tactic to disrupt and put the opposing side on the offensive. It is intended to cause defensiveness and may also carry a tinge of the racist. It's the Rovian way of distracting the opposition to make sure real issues are not discussed. I'm surprised you took the bait. Another week's column wasted. How sad.
Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC
I guess I do not understand your role as the ombudsman of PBS. You spent your whole column relating to Gwen Ifill, basically praising her and her work. You spend a couple sentences at the very end saying she and the commission on debates should have done a better job disclosing the book and its topic. We do not write you to read how great everyone on PBS is and how professional they are, why is it that members of the media need to slap themselves and each other on the backs all day long?
Grand Forks, ND
I think that's a pretty self-serving column you wrote. Any time there is a legitimate question about the bias of a journalist, we are always told that they have the highest integrity. Wait, unless they work for Fox, of course. Then they are hopelessly biased. Of course Ifill should have made the commission aware of her book — it's not the commission's job to think of every possible question to ask her.
Overall I think she did a credible job last night, with one glaring exception. Biden stated emphatically that the US and France had kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, and that we should have sent NATO troops in afterwards. Ifill should have at LEAST asked a follow up regarding that bizarre claim. If Palin had said that, you can bet it would be the major headline today. One more thing — if Ifill's book is NOT positive about Obama, I will purchase, cook, and eat every copy in Dallas.
The title of the Ifill book, you write, is "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." Debuting 1/20/09. "The Age of Obama"! The book will sell perhaps hundreds of thousands, and influence the power-elite favorably, re Ifill's career, if Obama wins. It will sell poorly, and be forgotten, if he loses.
Ifill, and indirectly, PBS, has a financial stake in this book and the outcome of the election. As one of the conservative callers you so disparage said yesterday, it's like an NBA ref who favors a team — not unusual, or even avoidable — vs. a ref who has bet on the game, who should go to jail. Ifill has bet on the game, a major financial and career-stake in the election outcome, and it's a gross conflict of interest for her to officiate after concealing the information from the McCain Campaign and the Commission. And you know that. You trashed your ombudsman position with this opinion.
John Michael Williams, Bethesda, MD
The analysis floors me, frankly. It doesn't matter one bit how fair and professional Ifill has been in the past. This is a slam dunk appearance of impropriety, personal conflict of interest that should have been vetted and absolutely should not have been tolerated. When a judge, who is also supposed to be impartial, like a journalist, has a personal connection to a project that gives the impression that he or she has a reason to favor one party in a case over another, that judge is supposed to recuse. Ifill had a duty to do the same. This one isn't even a close call. How do we know she hadn't thought of a perfect gotcha question for Biden but withheld it because it might undermine her upcoming book? We don't. It doesn't matter if we did this or not — the question shouldn't even arise. Journalistic ethics are a joke, but not a funny one.
Jack Marshall, Alexandria, VA
Thank you for The Doctrine of No Surprises. Obviously this was not made as public as it should have been, but I would guess that Gwen Ifill probably thought that the book in progress was already pretty public. I totally agree with the people who said they would have asked her to moderate anyway because they have confidence in her integrity. Her performance during the debate was flawless. If she had in any way shown any bias, I would have noticed because I am one of the lifelong Demos who is turning my back on them this year.
Olive L., Austin, TX
Ethics Training Needed
Have you received any training in professional ethics?
I believe that Ms. Ifill acted in a fair and unbiased manner in last night's debate. However, that, and the many extraneous considerations you introduce, have nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Ifill acted unethically. I urge you to review the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: "Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived."
All these codes prohibit conflicts of interest, real or perceived. If you do not reasonably understand that there is a perceived conflict of interest in this case, then you should resign and allow someone competent to take your place. Of course, you could just dismiss the chorus of critics calling for censure. That would merely provide more ammunition for those who believe that PBS thinks it is chartered to lecture us about ethics without actually living up to them.
Bernard Beard, Memphis, TN
After having read your article here regarding the Ifill mess, my worst fears came true. You're just one of the gang and see little wrong with her hosting the VP debate, when outside of DC, NY, etc., it just seems so obvious. It's not like there is a shortage of TV talking heads available, which makes this choice appear, as it apparently it was meant to, a smack in the face to non-liberal flyover country.
Joseph Coughlin, Loxahatchee, FL
Thanks for your column, but it doesn't excuse Gwen pitching softballs in an unforgivably lax moderator job. She was obviously afraid to ask anything substantive, lest she be accused of partisanship, in light of her forthcoming book.
Santa Monica, CA
Isn't the issue that there is a clear appearance that she stands to benefit financially if Obama wins the election. It does not matter whether this is true, it's the appearance that raises the ethics issue.
Al Nigam, Vienna, VA
I just read your report about Gwen Ifill and the Vice Presidential debate. For the most part, you were right. Gwen Ifill is a good professional reporter. However, she has very liberal views. This, and her book, means that she is biased and this will show. You, being a liberal, may not notice this. When a liberal looks at another liberal, they don't see bias because they don't see disagreement.
Ed Kertz, Ballwin, MO
Your answer to the Ifill was double-speak. On one hand you say PBS has no say but that doesn't keep you from defending the selection. To say that a book with part of its title being "Age of Obama" doesn't smack of bias is a dubious assertion. Furthermore, you characterize the doubters as 'conservative.' Why? Any fair-minded person would have objections. You try to cite the McCain-Palin team as agreeing with the decision. The quote you chose contradicts your characterization. Palin: ". . . it makes us work harder." Why work harder if there is no bias? As ombudsmen, you must work much harder at objectivity. Seems your priority was defense instead.
John Diggs, South Hadley, MA
Mr. Getler are you kidding me? You really think that Gwen Ifill is qualified to comment on the election in an impartial, fair fashion? I'm shocked and disgusted by the PBS decision to allow her to comment in any way on an election she has a financial stake in. Shame on you. Ifill is an extremely intelligent woman, but she (and you) have put blinders on, the two of you can't see the obvious conflict of interests that is glaring to American citizens.
Ifill should be fired for not coming clean with the commission. I no longer have confidence in PBS as fair and balanced. It used to be the channel where I watched my nightly news. Now I don't trust any of your commentators, anchors, reporters, and especially Michael Getler! You are supposed to be the Ombudsman and investigate complaints yet you ignore the facts and take up for her, instead of recommending she be fired. It causes PBS to suffer the loss of credibility!
C. T., New Bern, NC
Thank you for your work in such a difficult job with such tough challenges! I think that the political right-wing challenges to PBS and PBS commentators (Ifill) have worked to some extent to effectively de-fang and neutralize ANY legitimate criticism or observations that may be taken as criticism . . . This is discouraging.
Cindy Adams, Beaverton, OR
I have to disagree with you on your response to the Gwen Ifill situation. First — It's a little disingenuous of both you and Gwen to insinuate that that the book is not already written or complete. In order for this book to be fully proofed, pubed, final pics, printed and distributed — Her book is done except for the final chapter in order to make a Jan 20th release date — C'mon guy — stop blowing smoke. But the more fundamental issue is truly journalistic integrity.
Limbaugh writes books, Hannity writes books, O'Reilly writes books — But (to my knowledge) they have never written a book with the name of a Conservative candidate who was in the book title — AND — moderated a debate. If I'm wrong, let's nominate one of those guys to moderate the next debate and see how far we get.
Charles Roller, Fremont, CA