Thursday, October 2, 2008

Columbia School of Journalism: Ifill Violates Journalistic Ethics

No one ever accused the Columbia School of Journalism of being conservative. But it is, whether or not deservedly so, one of the the leading journalism schools in the nation. Yesterday, the Columbia Journalism Review states what should be obvious to anyone of principle: Ifill enjoys a direct financial interest in the outcome of the very proceeding over which she presides, and thus suffers from an irreconcilable conflict of interest.   
There appears, to us, to be a conflict in Ifill moderating tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate. Here’s why:

- Ifill’s upcoming book is called “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” It, apparently, “surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians [like Newark Mayor Corey Booker and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick] forging a bold new path to political power.”

- The book apparently will be published on January 20th, 2009, Inauguration Day.

- It stands to reason that a book with such a title would sell better if a certain person is inaugurated on that day.

We’ve also set aside several other related questions that are being raised in various places online, on cable, and elsewhere, including: why is this becoming a “thing” now, when Ifill’s book was reported on well before Ifill was selected as the moderator, and the McCain campaign might have raised this earlier if it bothered them? What about, say, CBS’s Bob Schieffer and his relationship to George W. Bush? Schieffer moderated a debate back in 2004. Etc. Much of that sounds like the usual political noise. But the financial part seems real. Gwen?


  1. If it will help us get past this, I will stipulate that Gwen Ifill is a reprehensible person for not "recusing" herself from the debate. No, check that: she is reprehensible because her bias, unlike that of every other possible moderator, is out in front, for everyone to see.

    We should call the debate off. The remaining presidential debates, also: those moderators are more insidious, not having written books with the name of one participant in the title and so not having announced their biases publicly.

    I can hardly wait for what will surely be a week of picking through the entrails of tonight's debate, not for what the candidates may say, but for evidence that Ifill somehow forced them to say it, and so to tout, however indirectly, her book.

    Anyway, I'll be watching the Cubs.

  2. Tony, I think you miss the whole point. This is not about how Ifill did, or might have, affected the merits of the debate, much less the election. This is about how our standards of journalism and ethics have eroded. The loser was not Palin, or McCain (at least not for this reason). The loser was our confidence in the integrity of the media and the commission on debates, towards which there was not much love lost for you. But for others, there (I hope) should have been.

  3. Sorry, Pericles: I still don't get it. Unless you assume that Ifill's role as moderator in the debate is akin to that of a judge or umpire, it's hard to see why, just because she favors one side or even stands to make money if that side wins, she is therefore not qualified to moderate.

    No Sunday morning goes by without all sorts of question and answer sessions, often with two representative of opposing sides, being conducted by acknowledged or presumed partisans. George Stephanopoulos was a Clinton operative, to cite only one example. The Fox News slogan "Fair and Balanced" is the subject of ridicule, not because that's not what the standard of news reporting should be, but because Fox has so often and so obviously fallen far short of that standard. In its news reporting, not in its editorializing.

    Journalistic ethics, for what they are worth, have never been very high; in fact the history of political journalism in this country is one of almost unrelieved and often incredibly bitter and one-sided partisanship (read "American Aurora" for a flavor of turn of the 19th century journalism). Do you think that journalistic standards have eroded since the days of Colonel McCormack's Tribune, or maybe since those of Wm R. Hearst?

    Again, the question here is not who is ethical, it's who can moderate a debate. Ifill has a great deal of experience interviewing all sorts of political actors, and her fairness has never (to my knowledge) been an issue.

    I will repeat, my confidence in the integrity of the debates (not sure why you seem to think I have little) would not be shaken if Gingrich were the moderator. It is the nature of a moderator's job to be even-handed; and if he's not it is easy to spot. What we expect from a moderator is familiarity with the issues, experience in conducting interviews and controlling them, and a reasonable ability to efface himself (Geraldo Rivera or Jerry Springer would not meet this last standard, because the story might be expected to become one about them).

    I don't think journalistic ethics comes into the picture here, as it might if, e.g., (1) a bias or conflict were hidden, in a piece where an opinion were voiced, or (2) if there were an emphasis on some types of stories, or number of stories on a given subject, that arose from an undisclosed animus and, masquerading as impartial delivery of news, created a misleading impression of the facts.

    Journalistic ethics only requires that circumstances (personal bias, conflict of interest) that might prejudice the speaker or writer are disclosed. That's why half the opinion pieces one reads these days contain at some point the parenthetical "(full disclosure: my wife's S & M partner once worked for Senator Blough's campaign)" or some such.

    Because Ifill's circumstance might fairly (or even unfairly) seem to create a bias or a conflict, it needed to be disclosed. It was. End of story.

  4. Tony is completely right. The moderators are selected by a non-partisan commission, which presumably thoroughly vets its choices before making the announcement. Secondly, this would be a broach of ethics if the issue was never disclosed, but it was out in the open.

    So what now? The Wall Street Journal shouldn't report on issues relating to anything owned by Rupert Murdoch? And maybe the media as a whole shouldn't report on the journalism business?

    There was no reason for Ifill to recuse herself. And if a moderator who is known throughout the journalism world as being fair and impartial (we're not talking about a pundit here) is the catalyst that makes us lose our confidence in the integrity of the media -- then we haven't been paying attention.


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