The internet has been buzzing with charges that tonight's debate moderator, Gwen Ifill, has a conflict of interest because she is writing a book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, that is due to be released on inauguration day in 2009. If nothing else, it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, much as would a journalist's participation in a political rally or partisan political activity. This is the view taken by the Columbia Journalism Review:
Gwen Ifill has done solid, important journalism. She’ll likely be a good, tough, and neutral moderator to the vice-presidential debate. Let’s set that aside, for now.The CJR also suggests that the potential financial interest in an Obama victory may raise a different sort of conflict issue than prior debate moderators' personal affinities or preferences for individual candidates (e.g. CBS' Bob Schieffer's friendship with George W. Bush).
Conflict of interest is often about appearances. There appears, to us, to be a conflict in Ifill moderating tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate.
I think CJR is correct that there is an appearance of a conflict. I also think that Ifill should have disclosed the book project and its title to the Presidential Debate Commission (which she apparently failed to do). But I also think that the debate should go on with Ifill as the moderator, and partisans of either stripe should wait and see how Ifill performs before casting judgment. Like all professional journalists, she is expected to put aside her personal views and interests when doing her job, and if she is less-than-neutral in her performance tonight, it will be out in the open for us all to see. In sum, any conflict of interest, whether real or perceived, should have a minimal effect because the voting public will be able to evaluate Ifill's fairness for themselves when watching tonight's debate.