A shocking conflict of interest

As Scott has pointed out, Gwen Ifill, who will moderate the vice presidential debate on Thursday, is the author of a book called The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. The book is due to be published on January 20, 2009.

Ifill moderated the 2004 vice presidential debate and did, I thought, an excellent job. But she has an obvious conflict of interest this time around. If Obama wins, her book has a good chance to sell lots of copies; if he loses, sales will probably be low to non-existent.

Ifill’s position is untenable. She will almost certainly be accused of (a) being unfair to Palin in order to sell her book, (b) being unfair to Biden in order to prevent accusation “a” or (c) both. Either the first of the second accusation will be quite plausible.

Ifill was selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. In my view, her selection discredits this body. And Ifill’s decision to accept the role of debate moderator during this cycle discredits her. In 2012, neither the Commission on Presidential Debates nor Ms. Ifill should play a role in presidential debates.

UPDATE: Ifill questions why people assume her book will be favorable towards Obama. She then plays the race card, finding it “curious” that people didn’t assume Lou Cannon’s book on Reagan would be favorable.

Ifill misses the point. The conflict of interest doesn’t arise from her view of Obama; if she favors Obama, she is like countless other journalists including (I suspect) at least some of the whites who will moderate other debates. The conflict arises from Ifill’s stake, given the book, in an Obama victory.

Ifill also notes that her book has never been a secret; to the contrary it was noted in Time Magazine and can be found on Amazon. That’s mostly beside the point too. As an ethical matter, Ifill should not have agreed to moderate this debate. The fact that someone could have found out about the problem, assuming that person reads Time or checks Amazon, doesn’t change this. Ifill’s assertion of the “you could have found this out” defense displays a disappointingly cavalier attitude towards the integrity of the debate process.


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