In mid-August, shortly after the Commission on Presidential Debates named Gwen Ifill of PBS as a moderator of the coming vice-presidential event, she wrote an essay in Time magazine that identified her as the author of a coming book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”
A couple of weeks later, an article in The Washington Post about her moderating duties described the book as focusing on “the Democratic nominee and such up-and-coming black politicians as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.”
But on the eve of the debate, Ms. Ifill and her book became the fresh object of outrage on conservative talk radio, blogs and cable news after a right-leaning Web site, WND.com, posted an article late Tuesday with the headline, “VP debate moderator Ifill releasing pro-Obama book.”
The expressions of shock that met the headline were almost instantaneous, starting with the Drudge Report, which devoted a huge two-line headline to the article: “VP Debate Moderator Releasing ‘Age Of Obama’ Book On Inauguration Day.”
“Let’s get real here. What would journalists say if in 2004 Jim Lehrer wrote a book called ‘Breakthrough, the age of Bush?’ ” Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman and now MSNBC host, asked rhetorically on Wednesday morning.
“Nonpartisan my foot,” Michelle Malkin, the syndicated conservative columnist, wrote online.
Bill Hemmer, the Fox News anchor, questioned how Ms. Ifill could fairly moderate the debate as the author of a book he described as including “a glowing profile” of Mr. Obama. In an online “GretaWire,” the Fox News host Greta Van Susteren wrote, “I am stunned.” She added, “In law, this would create a mistrial.”
Senator John McCain of Arizona chimed in himself on Wednesday, saying he was confident Ms. Ifill would do “a totally objective job,” though he added, “Does this help that if she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not.”
Ms. Ifill’s authorship of a book that delves into the career of Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has raised some concern among independent media analysts, who cited potential appearances of conflict of interest.
But some Democratic strategists — and even one former adviser to Mr. McCain — describe the right-wing criticism as an effort to warn Ms. Ifill away from tough questioning of Ms. Palin (or to pre-emptively undermine Ms. Ifill’s credibility in the event Ms. Palin turns in a bad performance).
In an interview, Ms. Ifill said that she began writing the book, about the new generation of post-civil-rights-era black leaders, in spring 2007, long before Mr. Obama seemed likely to win the Democratic nomination. She said she had yet to write the chapter she plans to devote to Mr. Obama and argued with descriptions of her book as “pro-Obama.”
“Since I haven’t finished the book, it’s interesting people think they know what’s in it,” she said.
With the criticism, Ms. Ifill joined legion with many of her fellow debate moderators this year, whose motives and views have been widely questioned before their events — when they are formulating their questions — and after them, when partisans on both sides seek to cast the results in the most favorable terms possible for their candidates.
Though moderators face questions over their personal views and motives in every campaign, this year’s debate over the debate officiators has been unusually intense, perhaps a natural result of such a hard-fought and close election. Other moderators who have been excoriated by viewers and partisans include Tim Russert, Brian Williams and Chris Matthews of NBC News and George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson of ABC News.
But the debate surrounding Ms. Ifill was heated, even by this year’s standards, coming before what both sides have come to view as a crucial test for Governor Palin, who has turned in uneven performances in several highly watched interviews.
Ms. Ifill came under scrutiny shortly after Mr. McCain named Ms. Palin as his running mate. Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, reported receiving letters from viewers who wrote they believed Ms. Ifill’s facial expressions while reporting on Ms. Palin’s convention speech betrayed “disgust.”
Noting that Ms. Ifill had, in fact, reported delegates “exploded with excitement” in reaction to her speech, and “couldn’t have been happier,” Mr. Getler concluded that Ms. Ifill had turned in a “solid” performance.
The original article in World Net Daily highlighted the letters — though not Mr. Getler’s defense of Ms. Ifill — as well as complaints from conservatives four years ago, when she was the moderator of the debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was Senator John Kerry’s running mate.
During that debate, when Mr. Cheney had told her that he would need more than his allotted 30 seconds to respond to an accusation from Mr. Edwards regarding his former company, Halliburton, Ms. Ifill had said, “Well, that’s all you’ve got.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Mary Matalin, a longtime adviser to Mr. Cheney, said of Ms. Ifill, “I do think she’s fair.”
But, she said, given what she said was the well-earned distrust of the news media, especially among conservatives, “In this emotional climate, more care should have been taken to eliminate any aggravating factor.”
Kelly McBride, head of the ethics department at Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in Florida, said, “Obviously the book will be much more valuable to her if Obama is elected.” Still, she said, “I don’t necessarily see an absolute conflict of interest, it’s not like it’s his biography.”
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist, accused conservatives of pushing the issue to make Ms. Ifill think twice while addressing Ms. Palin during the debate. “I just think they’re trying to build every shield they can in case it doesn’t go well,” he said.
Ms. Ifill, a former reporter for The New York Times, said she was tuning it out. “I have to let people judge me by my work,” she said.
But she found a defender in John Weaver, a former adviser to Mr. McCain, who warned the senator’s supporters away from focusing on Ms. Ifill. “All of this hand-wringing, excuse-making and whining keeps McCain’s economic recovery plan away from the public,” he said. “Gwen Ifill is as honorable and fair a journalist as there is, and all of us in our business know that.”
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