October 2, 2008 | National Review Online

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Gwen Ifill's conflict for thee, but not for me.

The Italian government was considering privatizing its television industry. But Gwen Ifill has sharp antennae when it comes to the appearance of impropriety.

The star PBS correspondent on that pillar of MSM highbrow, the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, spotted the issue instantly. She conjured the image of Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, whose night job is television magnate. Brows soberly knitted, she put the penetrating question to her guests: “What should he do to overcome the potential for conflict of interest?”

Bingo! So clear. How could a public figure such as Berlusconi fulfill his fiduciary obligation to the citizens on a matter of great public consequence if he had a private financial stake in the outcome? Why, even if he were scruple personified, even if he played it absolutely straight, wouldn’t the public have a right to wonder whether they’d been had? Wouldn’t such an obvious compromise besmirch the integrity of the process? Wouldn’t citizens properly wonder what else such an ethically insensitive system might rig?

Yes, among the staff at the Newshour, nothing stirs the pot quite like conflicts of interest . . . at least as long as it’s not a Newshour star creating a blatant appearance of impropriety.

Search through the Newshour’s website for the phrases “conflict of interest” and “appearance of impropriety” and one is overwhelmed. Here’s Ifill yet again, wondering whether former Senator Bill Frist’s hospital company stock represented a conflict of interest vis a vis his legislative responsibilities. There’s the host himself, Jim Lehrer, asking whether Ken Starr should step aside as independent counsel due to the “conflict of interest” caused by his representation of tobacco companies.

Keep looking. You’ll quickly learn that “the greatest damage to [Sen. John McCain] is the appearance of impropriety” caused by the maverick reformer’s decision to opt out of the public campaign financing system. No surprise there. The Newshour likes campaign finance reform nearly as much as conflicts of interest. Typical is another top correspondent, Margaret Warner, pressing Sen. Russ Feingold: “So are you saying . . . that you do think this will end or limit the spectacle that so many of you pointed to as at least giving the appearance of impropriety, or corruption, which is elected officials . . . essentially selling their access to donors who gave big contributions?” (Emphasis added.)

Ah yes, trading favors for access. Self-dealing and windfall profits. These are big no-nos at the Newshour. The program was chagrined to report that the Senate Ethics Committee had cited former Senator Robert Toricelli for appearance of impropriety. Warner was moved to highlight an investigation’s condemnation of a U.N. bigwig’s “grave and ongoing conflict of interest” — overseeing the Oil-for-Food program while telling Saddam Hussein which favored companies should get the business. Another reporter agitated that a House Democrat could be laboring under a disqualifying conflict of interest: his lobbyist wife represented companies with a stake in legislative matters. Indeed, the Newshour even found a troubling potential conflict of interest — inviting the possibility of insider trading — when it realized Fortune 500 executives were sitting on each others boards.

The national pastime is a bit too Middle America for PBS, but it grabbed the Newshour’s attention when pitcher Roger Clemens contacted his former nanny during congressional hearings into steroid use. After all, Henry Waxman — a Newshour fave — was worried about the “appearance of impropriety” in witnesses possibly getting their stories straight. And how ‘bout those wily accounting firms that seek to do lucrative consulting work for the same companies they audit: “How can that be anything but a conflict of interest?” Correspondent Terrence Smith is concerned about the “conflict of interest” he detects when a reputable press organization partners with news services owned by the very companies the press should be covering. In turn, Phil Ponce notes that Olympic organizers were forced to resign over the “appearance of conflict of interest” because they had a financial stake in some of the sites being considered for the games. And lookie here: the Newshour says the San Francisco Chronicle has even had to reassign its letters editor because his campaign contributions created a conflict of interest.

On it goes: Newshour hounds spanning the globe for the constant variety of insider glad-handing . . . but managing to glide silently by their own studio.

Gwen Ifill has somehow been chosen to moderate tonight’s vice-presidential debate between the Republican, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, and Democratic senator Joe Biden, the bottom of the ticket for the Obama campaign. Ifill’s task is to project complete objectivity so the public gets — and can have faith that it is getting — a fair fight.

But there’s a problem. Even among the adoring Obamedia, Ifill’s swoon is singular. MSNBC’s cringe-inducing Chris Matthews volunteers his leg tingles (thanks for sharing there, Chris); Ifill is thankfully more discreet but still leaves no need to wonder: She is so deep in the Anointed One’s hip pocket, she can feel Obama’s leg tingle.

The syrupy courtship is mutually gluttonous. Obama gets heaps of favorable coverage from TV’s version of the New York Times; Ifill gets enough primo access to become a valued surrogate while posing as a dispassionate observer. Not content with that, the relationship has evolved into a commercial arrangement: Ifill is about to release a book called The Breakthrough, which capitalizes liberally (in every sense of the word) on her insider relationship with Obama, his family, and his campaign.

“No, no, no,” cry Ifill’s cronies. Conflicts are for Roger Clemens and his nanny. Our Gwen’s book is not Obama-centric, much less Obamaphilic. Not at all. It is about a whole series of African American leaders now shattering the Black political structure of the civil-rights era.

Uh-huh. That must be why Gwen decided a fitting subtitle for The Breakthrough would be Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. It must be why the first sentence in the publisher’s description of the book raves that Ifill has set about “shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign.” It must be why Ifill and Random House have scheduled publication to coincide with the inauguration of the next president.

The major “breakthrough” on display here is not Jesse Jackson’s, Cory Booker’s, or Deval Patrick’s. It is the prospect of an Obama victory. Ifill has shed whatever patina of objectivity she had to become Obama’s amanuensis. In the process, she has shrewdly designed a commercial transaction that gives her a hefty stake in the outcome of the election — if Obama wins and the inauguration book roll-out goes as planned, she’ll make a bundle.

Yet, the scourges of conflict seem suddenly to have lost their voice.

So what are we likely to get tonight as Ifill — who is about as fit for a referee role as that NBA zebra who is doing time for betting on the games he was calling — steers Beltway Biden’s confrontation with hayseed Palin, whose selection is the greatest obstacle between Obama and his breakthrough?

Well, when last seen slumming among the lower species during the Republican Convention, Ifill was on the floor covering Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech. Most critics conceded, however grudgingly, that the speech was a home run. Not Ifill, though. You can judge Ms. Objectivity’s performance for yourself (Michelle Malkin provides the clip, here). Maybe the reporter’s pained weariness is excusable — after all, for an MSM stalwart, it was the end of a very long day, marked more by knuckle-dragging than leg-tingling. Still, Ifill’s distaste for the whole Palin business is patent, especially over how Palin “belittled” Obama’s formative “community organizer” experience.

It was a sharp contrast from the bubbly Gwen of the Democrat convention. In Denver, not even the rigors of a long coverage day could dampen her enthusiasm for another highly anticipated speech: an address to the convention by Obama’s wife, Michelle.

Ifill’s chore was to set the table. What to say to millions of Americans just starting to pay attention, just encountering Mrs. O for the first time? Perhaps a recap of notorious Michelle moments? The pronouncement that the United States is “downright mean”? The explanation that Barack’s nomination marked the first time she’d ever felt “proud” of her country?

Not exactly. Here’s Ifill’s rigorously even-handed, dispassionate assessment (again, courtesy of Michelle Malkin):

    A lot of people have never seen anything that looks like a Michelle Obama before. She’s educated, she’s beautiful, she’s tall, she tells you what she thinks and they hope that she can tell a story about Barack Obama and about herself. . . .

Conflict? What conflict?

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