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PBS Ombudsman

Busting the News?

This is a tale of two phrases. One accompanies the conservative online media-watch site known as NewsBusters, declaring itself devoted to "exposing & combatting liberal media bias." The other is of uncertain origin but holds that "no good deed will go unpunished."

Both of these slogans were in play this week as NewsBusters, once again, sought to nail PBS NewsHour senior correspondent and Washington Week moderator Gwen Ifill with a journalistic misdeed.

Just last week I wrote about criticism, inspired in part by NewsBusters, of a NewsHour segment on April 9 in which Ifill described the neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, George Zimmerman, who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, as "white."

Now, NewsBusters has come after her again. The headline on their April 18 story by Tim Graham reads: "PBS Anchor Gwen Ifill To Emcee LGBT Fundraiser Hailing HHS Secretary's Work on ObamaCare."

Graham wrote, "On Thursday night, Ifill will cross another Obama line by acting as emcee for a fundraiser for the LGBT health and advocacy group the Whitman-Walker Clinic that will honor Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services for her work in implementing Obamacare." And he published the organization's invitation to the April 19 event, which said, in part: "Please join Gwen Ifill, managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent for the PBS News Hour, and the Whitman-Walker family as we honor . . . Sebelius for advancements in health care."

Graham also reported that "Washington PBS superstation WETA — which produces both Ifill shows — did not return a call for comment." They should have. I'm sure they don't like NewsBusters, which often is critical of some aspect of the NewsHour and sometimes, in my opinion, uses strident language and alleged motivations in making their points. But when there is another side of a story it is best to tell it at the time. The explanations never really catch up.

Wemple's on the Case

Ifill did respond both to me and to the online media blogger at The Washington Post, Erik Wemple, who seems to be on top of all such matters in a flash.

Here's what Ifill had to say:

"This is the second or third time I've emceed an event for Whitman Walker. I try to do at least one pro bono event for a Washington charity I care about every year. I've also twice emceed events for the N Street Village women's shelter. I accepted this invitation months ago without knowing who was getting their award. I do not serve in any capacity at WW, had no input into the awardee and did not vet it in any way. That said, when I saw they were giving the award to Secretary Sebelius, I didn't object. I keep arms' length from those sorts of decisions on purpose. I am trying to do a good deed, not sit as judge or jury about who they choose to honor. I am not even the one presenting the award to Secretary Sebelius. I open the event, introduce the Chief Medical Officer Ray Martins, and he presents the award. I advise guests to take part in the silent auction, and send them off to dessert, and we're out of there by 9 if I have anything to do with it."

She added to Wemple: "It sounds like I'm honoring her," Ifill said of the official invitation. When, in fact, the clinic is just "using me as a draw. There's a difference between what the invite says and what happens on that stage tonight."

Wemple has already opined on this episode as follows: "Unless I come across a NewsHour puff piece on the HHS National Action Plan to prevent health-care-associated infections in the coming weeks, I'm disinclined to grouse about Ifill's charity appearance."

And, as I sat down to write this morning, the first email in my inbox was from Kelley Jones of Sacramento, Calif. She wrote: "Please do not validate Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, with any form of response to his criticism of Gwen Ifill over her decision to serve as emcee at Thursday's annual fundraiser for Whitman-Walker Health. I hope and trust that PBS will be of service to its listening audience by standing-up to the bullyism, hatred and thinly veiled racism that dominates the American conservative social agenda."

My Thoughts

In my gut, I agree with Wemple. Ifill is not likely to put her journalistic credentials in jeopardy by going soft in her reporting or moderating as a result of sharing a billing at a charity event with Secretary Sebelius.

But — and there always seems to be a "but" in ombudsman columns — I also don't fault NewsBusters for pointing this out. There are media-watch groups on the left and right, and tied to hundreds of other special interests. To anybody in the middle or on the receiving end of their focus, they are at times annoying and often anger-producing because they may make a fair point but then use it in unfair ways. Still, the basic points they call attention to are often worthy challenges and need to be addressed.

And, although I am confident about Ifill's journalistic integrity — having known her, watched her, and worked with her for some years at The Washington Post — my vote would have been to bow out of this event. I felt the same way in 2006 when PBS talk show host Charlie Rose was listed as among the hosts for a New York dinner party honoring the CEO of Wal-Mart a few months after Rose had a rare interview with him.

In addition to the two phrases cited at the top of this column, I would add another for journalists: "When in doubt, don't do it."

Ifill is among the most high-profile, widely recognized journalists in the country. The Whitman-Walker Health operation in Washington is also widely recognized for its early and continuing efforts in combatting HIV/AIDS. Both the NewsHour and Washington Week deal, at times, with news surrounding LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) issues. And, of course, Sebelius is closely associated with the president's health care legislation.

So, while a high-profile reporter with a major news operation would probably feel it foolish for anyone to believe he or she could be influenced by such things, it is not foolish to think that others might, and that the perception just isn't worth the risk.

Back in October 2008, I also wrote about Ifill in a controversy that also sprung up first on conservative websites and among conservative commentators. It involved her selection to moderate the then high-stakes vice-presidential nominee debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

At the time, Ifill was writing a book titled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." The title of my column was "The Doctrine of No Surprises," because questions never were asked by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates — for example, are you working on anything we should know about? — and Ifill didn't bring it up.

When the latest NewsBusters criticism arrived, I messaged producers at both of the programs Ifill appears on and asked under what PBS, WETA or program editorial guidelines is this appearance okay? I haven't heard back yet, although I did get that candid explanation from Ifill. Producers for both of these programs routinely put out first-class news and public affairs offerings. Yet I suspect — and I stress that I don't know — that the no surprises doctrine might have been missing in action again and something that seemed like a good deed got punished without being known about, discussed or thought through.

There is still another saying that journalists understand, and that is when you walk into a major newspaper or network, you leave a lot of luggage at the door, including sacrificing some personal freedoms. That is because the credibility of the news organizations is more important than anything else.

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