As the presidential candidates prep for the final debate of 2008 — which will take place on October 15 in Hempstead, New York, with CBS’s Bob Schieffer moderating — it’s a fitting time to ask: why do some journalistic conflicts of interest become semi-scandals, while others get almost no attention at all?
Just this past week, Gwen Ifill’s (allegedly) problematic role as moderator of the vice-presidential debate was the big story. The problem, according to conservatives, was that — as author of the upcoming The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday) — Ifill simply couldn’t be fair to Republican V-P nominee Sarah Palin, since an Obama victory will be a boon to her book. Even some of Ifill’s defenders were critical, such as PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, who said Ifill and/or the debate organizers should have drawn attention to her book far earlier.
So why didn’t they? Here’s one possible answer: Schieffer, who in 2004 also moderated the third presidential debate. Like PBS’s Jim Lehrer and ABC’s Charlie Gibson, who moderated the first two debates four years ago, and like Ifill herself, Schieffer is a respected veteran journalist. He also, however, has close ties to the president. Schieffer’s brother Tom had, with George W. Bush, been a part owner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers franchise; after Bush’s 2000 win over Al Gore, the president named Tom Schieffer ambassador to Australia. (He’s now our ambassador to Japan.) What’s more, Bob Schieffer and the president had, according to a 2003 piece by Washington Post media writer Howie Kurtz, previously golfed, watched baseball games, and visited spring training together.
Schieffer’s links to Bush didn’t necessarily mean he couldn’t moderate effectively in ’04, but they did raise questions. Scratch that: they should have raised questions. Instead, save for a few exceptions — including a debate-day post from Daily Howler blogger Bob Somerby — the issue of Schieffer’s conflict went largely undiscussed.
Consequently, it would be understandable if Ifill considered launching a defense of herself and her book — but then thought: Screw it. Schieffer didn’t have to stick up for his integrity. Why should I?
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Ifill story took off and the Schieffer story fizzled. For one thing, nowadays stories move into the mainstream from the partisan periphery (e.g., worldnetdaily.com, which triggered the Ifill stampede this past week) way faster than they used to. For another, while media unfairness has gone from a right-wing talking point to a bipartisan preoccupation, John McCain has made the charge of liberal bias especially incendiary this year. What’s more, the 2004 Schieffer-moderated debate came just one month after Dan Rather’s controversial story on George W. Bush’s years in the Texas Air National Guard, which focused attention on charges that CBS was biased against Bush, not for him.
But in reality, the problem is far bigger than Ifill and Schieffer. The fact is, the press still ignores or minimizes potential conflicts of interest far more often than it should — especially those involving high-stakes stories and high-profile journalists.
Take, for example, the ongoing awkwardness involving NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. When Mitchell married Alan Greenspan in 1997, she was NBC’s chief foreign-affairs correspondent and he was the head of the Federal Reserve, which gave each spouse their own professional bailiwick.
Eleven years later, the Fed is run by Ben Bernanke. (Greenspan stepped down in 2006.) Meanwhile, Mitchell’s professional portfolio has grown: she’s kept her old title, anchors a daily news show on MSNBC, and provides commentary on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and Hardball. And in that expanded capacity, she’s been weighing in on the ongoing financial crisis — which, obviously, is not unconnected with her husband’s former line of work.
Here’s an example of why, even though Greenspan has stepped down, it’s still problematic for Mitchell to report on financial matters: as Columbia Journalism Review’s Megan Garber recently noted, during a September 24 appearance on Morning Joe, Mitchell suggested that trouble at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began in 2006 and 2007, after her husband’s departure from the Fed, when Fannie and Freddie embraced the subprime loan market. “Mitchell may be making a fair historical comparison to add context to the current crisis,” Garber acknowledged. “[B]ut the fact that it’s a comparison that would also partially absolve her husband from guilt in that crisis means that it’s probably a point another reporter should be making.”
That’s a tough point to argue against. But in an e-mail to Garber, Allison Gollust, NBC News’s senior vice-president for communications, did just that. Decisions about Mitchell’s reporting, Gollust explained, are made on a case-by-case basis. While stories that might present a conflict are assigned to someone else, Gollust said, “There are countless aspects of the story that present absolutely no potential for conflict whatsoever” — and NBC is “100 percent comfortable with all of [Mitchell’s] reporting thus far.”