Did Gwen Ifill show bias in last night's debate?

The selection of Gwen Ifill as moderator for the VP debate last night generated a lot of controversy in light of her upcoming book on “The Age of Obama” — but did she actually show any bias in the debate?  It seemed to me that Ifill was on her best behavior during the debate, perhaps cognizant of the scrutiny she received over the preceding two days.  In speaking to a few of the people at Trocadero’s, no one could point to any particular bias or even sense of bias from Ifill in the few minutes following the debate.


This morning, though, I received several e-mails that claimed Ifill gave Joe Biden the last word on topics much more often than she gave to Sarah Palin.  I didn’t recall that, and I was actually considering that as a potential issue while watching the debate.  I consulted the transcript at the LA Times Top of the Ticket blog and counted them myself.  In 20 changes of topic, both candidates got 10 last words.  Biden got to deliver his closing statement after Palin, but that’s hardly a “last word” situation, and I believe that’s arranged prior to the debate.

Jim Geraghty scolds Ifill for not disclosing her conflict of interest at the start of the debate:

Gwen Ifill’s questions were not glaringly biased, but it was ridiculous that she didn’t feel the need to acknowledge her book on “The Age of Obama” at the beginning of the debate. It was the third time in this process that she has behaved dishonorably. The first was not disclosing the book to the Commission on Presidential Debates. The second was dismissing the criticism out of hand, and not acknowledging that debate moderators ought to not have a financial incentive to see one side win. And thirdly by refusing to acknowledge these facts during the debate, information that the viewers at home are entitled to take into consideration.


I consider the lack of disclosure to the CPD the most glaring ethical failure here.  I also would have liked to hear Ifill disclose the book in the beginning of the debate, as I’m almost certain that most of the audience had no idea of her financial interest in the outcome of the election.  Like Jim, I consider that a separate issue to the actual performance.

Ace, though, says the selection of the questions showed Ifill’s bias.  Ifill asked no questions on gun control, for instance, and that was a topic on which Barack Obama and Biden have disagreed.  No questions on abortion, either, and only the most tangential question about energy (climate change), which Palin had to seize upon in order to discuss the broader energy policy she and McCain promote.  And Ifill never asked a single question about earmarks, which let Biden and his $50+ million of 2009 requests off the hook.

In fact, here were the topics:

  1. Bailout bill
  2. How to reduce polarization in Washington.
  3. Subprime lending meltdown.
  4. Taxes.
  5. What spending from the platforms will have to be put off with the financial crisis?
  6. 2007 Bankruptcy bill.
  7. Climate change: real?  Causes?
  8. Same-sex benefits, gay marriage.
  9. Exit strategy in Iraq.
  10. Iran, Pakistan.
  11. Diplomacy (Kissinger question).
  12. Israel-Palestinian conflict.
  13. Afghanistan.
  14. Interventionism.
  15. How do you disagree with your running mates?
  16. What does a vice-president do?
  17. Is the VP part of the Executive Branch?
  18. What is your Achilles’ Heel?
  19. What is an issue on which you’ve changed your mind?

I would say that the questions leaned strongly in Biden’s direction, and ignored most of the McCain/Palin argument.  The wonder is that Biden didn’t do more with the assistance, and that Palin overcame it.

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