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October 01, 2008

ON GWEN IFILL: Karl Bade writes:

As a co-author of The Appearance of Impropriety, I'm wondering whether you think Gwen Ifill's problem is a real or perceived conflict. That distinction is not supposed to matter to professional journalists, but I guess this case is an exception.

Well, there are a few questions here. First, do journalistic ethics matter here? Moderating a debate is something that is frequently done by journalists, but is it really journalism?

Judges are subject to an "appearance" standard because they make a lot of decisions that could be subjective (or that could reasonably go either way), and could make a big difference to the parties, and that are supposed to be neutral. Journalists -- who make a lot of decisions about what to leave out and what to include, what sources to use, etc., and who are also supposed to be neutral -- might arguably fall under a similar standard; the Society of Professional Journalists seems to think they do, though actual practice in the field seems to diverge rather considerably from that ideal . . . .

But a debate moderator isn't actually an "arbiter," as he or she doesn't make any decisions. And while there's room for unfairness, say in asking easier questions of one party or the other, everything happens in the open. So maybe an "appearance of impropriety" rule isn't suitable here.

On the other hand, if, say, John Stossel or Bill O'Reilly were the moderator, I suspect that we'd be getting a lot of squawking from the same journalistic "watchdog" types who think there's no problem with Gwen Ifill. And that double standard -- and the departure from the neutrality ideal that it exemplifies -- is a bigger problem than any conflict of interest on Ifill's part. While a debate moderator isn't practicing journalism while moderating a debate, those who report on these matters are a different kettle of fish, and it's a kettle that's starting to smell kinda bad . . . .

In The Appearance of Impropriety, we talk about two kind of ethics paradoxes, named for Master Blifil in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. "Petty Blifil" involves the use of trivial ethics charges as an offensive weapon, something we see a lot of. "Grand Blifil" involves the focus on ethical minutiae as a way of disguising the fact that the entire game is corrupt. I'd say the latter applies to journalism in 2008.

UPDATE: Reader Michael Grubbs emails:

Am I missing something? Democrats wouldn’t debate EACH OTHER on Fox News. It was simply beneath them to subject themselves to such partisan hacks. Furthermore, I don’t find it shocking that the Republicans will be called crybabies (it has happened at my work already). It is an amazing double standard that we must embrace; we have no other choice.

Oh, I think there are other choices. I'll have a post on that later.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Michael Silence thinks I'm going too easy on her:

There's some discussion about whether this is ethical. Seems to me if you have to ask the question, then you know the answer.

Back in my reporting days, had I been covering two candidates and writing a book on one of them, it's quite possible I would have been fired. At the very least, I would have been removed from ANY contact with that race.

Sometimes I think the MSM checked its ethics at the turn of the century.

Naw. If they'd checked 'em, it'd mean they wanted 'em back someday . . . .

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