The Joe and Sarah show

October 2, 2008

A lot of conservative heavyweights have been freaking out over Gwen Ifill being the moderator of the Palin-Biden debate tonight. Ifill has a vested interest in the campaign — she has a pro-Obama book due out on Inauguration Day — so how can she be fair to Sarah Palin? Leave it to The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto — one of the most interesting and thoughtful conservative writers around today — to urge a little stepping back and calming down:

A little perspective is in order, however. The analogy between a debate moderator and a judge is overwrought. Unlike a judge, a moderator decides nothing beyond what questions to ask and how to keep the debate flowing. To put it another way, voters, unlike jurors, can make their decision on whatever basis they choose. They are not subject to instructions from the bench.

In addition, from the description on the Random House Web site, Ifill’s book is not “about” Obama, but about a broader trend of which his political rise is the most prominent example:

All of us in this business have baggage we have to deal with. The News-Sentinel has been intervieiwng candidates seeking our editorial board endorsements this month, and everyone who comes through here knows — unless they’re complete morons — that we’re the more conservative newspaper in Fort Wayne. That means we’re more likely to endorse Republican candidates than Democratic ones. But most of the Democrats come anyway, in part, I hope, because they know that, no matter what our philosophical predilections, we will ask honest questions and judge the answers thoughtfully. And we have endorsed some conservative Democrats — party labels don’t always tell the whole story at the local level.

I don’t mind that Ifill has a philosophical predisposition. Everybody does.  I do resent liberals who won’t admit they predominate in the mainstream media and carry their prejudices around with them.  What matters for all of us is how we do our jobs despite those prejudices. I’d feel better about Ifill if she introduced the debate by addressing the book controversy, but it’s not that big a deal for me.

The debate will be in baby bites — 90-second answers followed by two minutes of open discussion. That’s short-attention-span-theater territory, so the candidates can pretty much stick to their talking points if they want to. But it will also be 90 minutes long , so either candidate can break out and show us who he or she is — Biden can be Biden if he chooses, Palin can be Palin.

I’ve watched Ifill a lot and liked the way she approaches the news and current events, despite her obvious liberal world view. I suspect she will process all the chatter about her conflict — or at least the appearance of one — and bend over backwards to be as fair as she can. Tonight’s debate will be the Sarah and Joe show — let’s at least watch it and judge for ourselves before all the spin sets in.

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