CJR: Yes, Ifill has a conflict of interest

The Columbia Journalism Review takes up the matter of Gwen Ifill serving as a debate moderator while preparing to publish a book about Barack Obama.  Liz Cox Barrett calls much of the controversy “the usual political noise”, but agrees with me on the core point — that Ifill stands to benefit financially from Obama’s election.  That, Barrett notes, should disqualify Ifill from moderation duties:

Conflict of interest is often about appearances. 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.

Yes, it does, as the “Age of Obama” would have no meaning otherwise.  Barack Obama has been on the national stage a shorter period of time than John Edwards, who managed to win only one Senate race and no national contests.  Obama at least won his party’s nomination for President, but has two fewer years than Edwards in office at the national level.  What exactly is the “Age of Obama” if Obama loses in November?  And how would that impact Ifill’s sales?

Barrett then asked Newshour for Ifill’s response to the financial conflict of interest charge.  They sent two spokespeople to talk to Barrett, neither of whom would address the issue at all.  They insisted that Ifill had shown herself to be “fair and balanced” in the past, and was too busy with debate prep to answer Barrett.

Barrett shrugs off other questions even as she raises them, trying to focus on the issue of financial conflict of interest.  One of these, though, deserves a more extended analysis: why didn’t anyone object to Ifill from the beginning?  A couple of news sources had reported on her book project earlier this year, and apparently no one thought to Google Ifill.  That may be true, but does the CJR mean to take the position that it is the responsibility of the campaigns to investigate journalists for potential conflicts of interest, rather than have the journalists themselves disclose their interests?  Ifill never bothered to inform the CPD of her project.  Is that a failure of the CPD to investigate her, or is it an ethical failure of Ifill to disclose?

If it’s the former, then I can say with confidence that the blogosphere operates on a higher ethical plane than the mainstream media, and we hold each other more accountable for it, too.  We demand disclosure when bloggers write on topics on which they have financial interest or connections, such as Michael Brodkorb at Minnesota Democrats Exposed, who puts his disclosure statement on every applicable post.  On those occasions where others had to root out conflicts of interest, deluges of scorn and criticism followed.

Let me point to another example.  Armstrong Williams wrote columns supporting Bush administration policies while accepting money from them.  Did the media blithely accept that and note that it was the responsibility of his critics to find that out, rather than Williams’ duty to disclose it up front?  That’s not the way I recall it — and I agreed that Williams acted unethically in that instance and sharply criticized both him and the administration for that breach of trust.

The mere fact that Ifill kept that information from the Commission should be disqualifying in and of itself.  Had she disclosed that, then the responsibility would have rightly fallen to the Commission and the McCain campaign for not raising the objection at the time she was selected for this role.  As it is, Ifill failed to disclose what CJR acknowledges as a financial conflict of interest, and that responsibility was hers alone.