Debate moderators find themselves in crosshairs over bias charges
Scott Nance
Published: Thursday October 2, 2008

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Ifill, Brokaw both take hits

It seems Jim Lehrer may have gotten off lucky.

The PBS newsman moderated the first John McCain-Barack Obama debate last week free from partisan criticism, but two of his colleagues now find themselves under a microscope for charges of bias.

Gwen Ifill, who is to moderate Thursday's vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin, particularly is weathering a storm of criticism. Tom Brokaw, set to referee the October 7 encounter between John McCain and Barack Obama, is taking heat from the opposite direction for a perceived tilt toward McCain.

For Ifill, the issue is her upcoming book that the Drudge Report and other online conservatives call "pro-Obama." They say this book calls into question Ifill's objectivity -- that she won't ask tough questions of Biden, only Palin.

McCain himself took the issue on Thursday morning, in a Fox News interview: "Frankly, I wish they had picked a moderator that isn't writing a book favorable to Barack Obama -- let's face it," McCain said on "Fox & Friends." "But I have to have to have confidence that Gwen Ifill will handle this as the professional journalist that she is. ... Life isn't fair, as I mentioned earlier in the program."

The book in question is "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," and it's a look at African-American politics and politicians in the post-Civil Rights era, according to publisher Random House. Ifill deals not only with Obama, but other African-Americans as well, including prominent Republican Colin Powell.

MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann calls attempts to "pre-blame" Ifill a case of "pure racism" against her. Ifill is African-American.

Ifill has revealed that she did not tell the bipartisan commission sponsoring tonight's debate about the book. But liberal critics have complained that the McCain campaign had more than enough time to raise concerns about Ifill's book before now.

Frank James
, of Tribune's Washington bureau, says Malkin and the rest have nothing to worry about. Ifill will "bend over backwards" to be objective, particularly in light of the book controversy, he says.

"Ifill is going to be under the microscope. Every question she asks and the way she asks them will be apparent for all to see. If she appears to be favoring Obama, we'll see it and she knows that," he says.

But Scott Maxwell with, who respects Ifill as a journalist, says she should not be in the moderator's chair tonight.

"Her book deal raises legitimate questions. Even if you disagree, there are appearance issues. The campaigns should've raised these issues themselves in the first place. (And if they didn't, it makes you wonder why.) But now, she should let someone else do it," Maxwell said. "Joe Biden and Barack Obama should want that too. With the moderater tainted, Palin is in a no-lose situation. If she loses, she lost because of Ifill. If Palin wins, she won despite her."

Meanwhile, no less than the elder statesman of NBC News himself -- Tom Brokaw -- is not free from the bias cloud. and others are taking Brokaw to task for comments he made at the end of Sunday's "Meet The Press" that they call pro-McCain. Brokaw had just concluded a debate between McCain and Obama campaign strategists, when he added, "In fairness to everybody here, I'm just going to end on one note. And that is that we continue to poll on who's best equipped to be Commander in Chief, and John McCain continues to lead in that category despite the criticism from Barack Obama by a factor of 53 to 42 percent in our latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Gentlemen, thank you very much."

"We checked, and the latest NBC poll actually has no question about Commander in Chief," said. "We contacted NBC about this, and it turns out Brokaw was referring to a poll taken weeks ago--right after the Republican convention and well before Friday's big national security debate. And in each of NBC's last two polls, Americans chose Obama over McCain."

Brokaw's comment at the end of "Meet The Press" "wasn't just random--it painted an inaccurate picture of the race for voters," said, which is asking its supporters to email Brokaw, asking him to apologize.

Complaints of debate bias are not new issues in the 2008 campaign. Obama's partisans complained bitterly of bias against ABC News following a Democratic primary the network hosted earlier this year, even using the perceived slight as the basis to raise funds.

Conservatives also complained about bias in a CNN/YouTube debate for GOP presidential candidates, that those asking questions were too heavily represented by Democratic supporters.