October 6, 2008
Gwen Ifill's VP Debate Bias
A careful reading of the questions Gwen Ifill asked during the VP debate reveals several that displayed her bias.
The revelation that PBS's Gwen Ifill plans to release a book on Barack Obama on Inauguration Day raised the suspicion that her moderator role at the VP debate might be other than objective. It was. The evidence of her bias is evident in several of her questions to the candidates. Below are a few examples.
The Forced-Choice Question
The forced-choice question aims to force an answer from a choice of options defined by the interviewer. For example, in the early stages of the Afghanistan War, the late Peter Jennings asked Pervez Musharraf, then President of Pakistan, if the United States in Afghanistan was "bombing too much or too little."
It was a classic forced-choice question designed to create one of two headlines: "Musharraf Criticizes American for Bombing Too Much," or "...Too Little." Mr. Jennings intended to create controversy because controversy sells. Musharraf wisely dodged the question.
During the VP debate, Ifill used forced-choice questions to further her biases. Here's one:
"As America watches these things [Congress struggling with the bailout bill] happen on Capital Hill, Senator Biden, was this the worse of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?"
Honestly now, how many sane, reasonable people see the bailout ordeal as representing the "best" of Washington?
It was a tee-up question for Biden. He said, "neither the best nor worse," but it was, he said, a reflection of the bad economic policies of "the last eight years." In other words, it was the worse of Washington on the Bush-Republican side.
What would an un-biased question in this venue sound like? How about this: As America watches theses things happen on Capital Hill, what should they reasonably expect to be the outcome, and its impact on their lives?
Here's another example of an Ifill forced-choice question:
Here's another example of an Ifill forced-choice question:
"Who do you think was at fault? I start with you, Governor Palin. Was it the greedy lenders? Was it the risky home-buyers who shouldn't have been buying a home in the first place? And what should you be doing about it?"
Notice the choice not on the list -- Congressionally driven Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac policies that forced banks to make loans to people who had no ability to repay them.
Governor Palin accepted the Ifill choices and blamed ‘predator lenders" and Wall Street "greed" and "corruption."
The Bias-Premised Question
"Senator Biden, how, as vice president, would you work to shrink this gap of polarization which has sprung up in Washington, which you both have spoken about here tonight."
The key twin concepts in that question are "polarization" and "sprung up." The implied bias is that during the Bush administration polarization "sprung up."
Ifill is a smart, educated woman. She knows that partisan polarization has been part of Washington since the death of the man the city is named after. She also knows that when the House voted on the first version of the bailout bill, many Democrats voted against it. The "polarization" over the bailout wasn't based on political parties. It was based on economic free-market philosophy.
Here's another Ifill bias-premised question:
"Governor and Senator, I want you both to respond to this. Secretaries of State Baker, Kissinger, Powell, they have all advocated some level of engagement with enemies. Do you think these former secretaries of state are wrong on that?"
This was a back-door effort to support Barak Obama's "no preconditions" statement made during his nomination campaign. Ifill's bias is that there's nothing wrong with what Obama said.
Ifill knows that, diplomatically, "some level of engagement with enemies" goes on all the time, often through back channels using third parties. The idea that we don't communicate with our enemies is a Beltway media myth.
Hers was a cleverly formed question, since a "no" answer to the closed-ended query (a "yes" or "no" type question) with which it ends (Do you think...?) would sustain the notion that what Obama said is consistent with, and analogous to, what the former Secretaries of State say. Ifill uses the question to establish conceptual parity without the opportunity to challenge the premise.
(Peter Jennings tried this tactic once with General Tommy Franks, and Franks made Jennings, unaccustomed to being challenged, sit up straight in his chair by saying, "Peter, I don't accept the premise of your question.")
Here's another example of a biased question.
"Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the Constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?"
Out of left field, Ifill interjects the man Democrats love to hate, Dick Cheney, into the debate. She attributes an unexplained and unsubstantiated interpretation of the Constitution to Cheney, and then asks Palin to defend or attack that interpretation. (What interpretation?)
It was a question designed to trap Palin, akin to Charlie Gibson's "Bush Doctrine" question. Palin gave a one sentence non-committal answer, and then moved away from the topic. The question gave Biden another chance to demonize Cheney, and display his strikingly faulty understanding of when the VP presides over the Senate. He said,
"The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress."
Say what? This notion when unchallenged by Ifill. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution reads:
"The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.
"The Senate shall choose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States."
Cheney, and other Vice Presidents, could sit up on the platform and preside over the Senate every time it's in session, but they've other things to do. This is Biden's "no authority" interpretation.
Here's another example of a bias-premised question from Ifill.
"Let's come full circle. You both want to bring both sides together. You both talk about bipartisanship. Once again, we saw what happened this week in Washington. How do you change the tone, as vice president, as number two?"
Surely Ifill noticed that both support and opposition to the bailout bill was "bipartisan" in that members of both parties voted both for and against it. And surely she noticed that the most inflammatory language of that week was voiced by Speaker Pelosi when she called Republicans "unpatriotic" (but had no public name-calling for her initial 95 Democrat "no" votes).
One last example under this category of bias-premised questions:
"[To Biden] Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples."
This question was designed to get the attention of the conservative Republican base in order to erode Palin's favor there. Palin noticed that and made a point of saying,
"But I will tell Americans straight up that I don't support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go around and round about what that actually means."
Ask yourself this question: What influence does the Vice President have on individual state marriage policies that would warrant this question in a VP debate? The answer is - none. It was all about attempting to embarrass Palin before the GOP base.
The Contrived Dichotomy Question
Listen for the contrived dichotomy buried in this convoluted question from Ifill.
"Senator Biden, we want to talk about taxes, let's talk about taxes. You proposed raising taxes on people who earn over $250,000 a year. The question for you is, why is that not class warfare and the same question for you, Governor Palin, is you have proposed a tax employer health benefits which some studies say would actually throw five million more people onto the roles of the uninsured. I want to know why that isn't taking things out on the poor, starting with you, Senator Biden."
Nevermind Ifill's specious citation of an unnamed, uncertified source as "some studies." (What studies?) Note the dichotomy she creates within her question: Biden wants to tax the rich versus Palin wants to take health insurance away from the poor.
Another tee-up for Biden. He begins his answer with,
"Well Gwen, where I come from, it's called fairness, just simple fairness."
To conclude that Gwen Ifill's moderating efforts displayed through her questions were without bias requires a willing suspension of disbelief.
Her moderator performance represents another sad day for America's entrenched, and ever less objective, television journalism.