Responding to questions about PBS anchor/VP debate moderator/”Age of Obama”-proclaiming author Gwen Ifill’s conflicts of interest, a PBS spokeswoman huffed: “The book has been a known factor for months, so I’m not sure what the big deal is.”
It wasn’t a “known factor” to the McCain campaign. And it’s highly doubtful the American public would have been fully informed about Ifill’s Inauguration Day-timed Obama book before Thursday by PBS or Ifill or the Presidential Debate Commission.
John McCain told Fox News that’s he confident the “well-respected” Ifill will be fair. But at the heart of the controversy is an issue McCain is supposed to care deeply about: Transparency.
Perhaps he and PBS flacks should review their government-funded network’s own editorial standards before pooh-poohing fundamental questions about Ifill’s damaged credibility:
Along with fairness and accuracy, objectivity is the third basic standard to which journalists are held. While PBS holds all news and informational content to standards of objectivity, PBS recognizes that other types of content may not have the objective presentation of facts as their goal.
Objectivity, however, encompasses more than news and information presented in a neutral way. It also refers to the process by which a work was produced, including work that involves analysis or, as a result of reporting, arrives at conclusions. To begin with, journalists must enter into any inquiry with an open mind, not with the intent to present a predetermined point of view. Beyond that, for a work to be considered objective, it should reach a certain level of transparency. In a broad sense, this spirit of transparency means the audience should be able to understand the basics of how the producers put the material together. For example, the audience generally should be able to know not only who the sources of information are, but also why they were chosen and what their potential biases might be. As another example, if producers face particularly difficult editorial decisions that they know will be controversial, they should consider explaining why choices were made so the public can understand. Producers should similarly consider explaining to the audience why certain questions could not be answered, including why, if confidential sources are relied on, the producers agreed to allow the source to remain anonymous. And the spirit of transparency suggests that if the producers have arrived at certain conclusions or a point of view, the audience should be able to see the evidence so it can understand how that point of view was arrived at. One aspiration implicit in the idea of transparency is that an audience might appreciate and learn from content with which it also might disagree.
Opinion and commentary are different from news and analysis. When a program, segment, or other content is devoted to opinion or commentary, the principle of transparency requires that it be clearly labeled as such. Any content segment that presents only like-minded views without offering contrasting viewpoints should be considered opinion and should identify who is responsible for the views being presented.
No content distributed by PBS should permit conscious manipulation of selected facts in order to propagandize.
Ifill’s failure to acknowledge her book and the legitimate ethical questions it raises on Thursday night would be a dereliction of duty.