Wednesday, October 9, 2013


We heard Gwen Ifill live last night at the Paramount, featured by the Oakland Speaker’s Series. She was impressive, no surprise to the many who watch her on the PBS News Hour and Washington Week.

However, dismiss the thought that in a public lecture she might push the envelop beyond the constraints of journalistic “neutrality” as encoded at PBS. She began with a description of the crazy Washington scene and how relieved she was to escape it for a couple of days in Oakland and the East Bay. Her picture of the Washington scene was one that is widely promoted: Obama and Boehner unwilling to talk with each other, Democrats and Republicans alike unwilling to listen to each other, all behaving like spoiled brats rejecting compromise and negotiation.

She spoke sincerely and proudly about her journalistic values: emphasis on “fairness”, listening to ordinary people rather than politicians, being open to differing opinions. As an interviewer on TV, her object is to ask questions and let the viewers draw their own conclusions.

Ifill’s description of what’s going on in Washington was “even-handed”, but was it fair?

Equal scolding of “both sides” obscures and belittles the issues of contention that are paralyzing government and hurting so many people. Whatever the intention, it tilts the scales in favor of the GOP’s demand for its pound of flesh as a condition for allowing an end to the shutdown. So far, Obama has refused to give in to extortion, refusing to “negotiate” while the GOP-Tea Party caucus holds the country hostage to chronic government shutdowns.     

Of course, whether Gwen Ifill appears on TV or before a podium in Oakland, she is bound by the constraints that her job at PBS imposes. A questioner last night asked if programming on the News Hour was ever affected by fears over threats to public funding. She answered: “No, never once!”

It wouldn’t have hurt if she acknowledged that, even as a public speaker, she could not risk appearing to take sides. But then it might also have helped if she avoided giving her faux “analysis” of the current crisis.

Still, the audience loved her and with good reason. She is at the top of her profession. Too bad there aren’t more journalists and commentators who can tell it as it is, even when it offends the powers that be.  

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