The Debate Over the Debate: Can Gwen Ifill Be Fair and Balanced?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," October 1, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: There's controversy about tomorrow night's debate. Moderator PBS's Gwen Ifill, the PBS journalist. Ifill is writing and selling a book to be released in January, the day the next president is inaugurated. Called "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," here Gwen Ifill is in her own words talking about her new book.


GWEN IFILL, PBS JOURNALIST: The title of the book is "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." It is taking the story of Barack Obama and extending it to talk about a whole new generation of black politicians who are doing very similar things in very different ways.

They are younger, they are more likely to get to power not by marching in marches the way their parents did, or by leading protests. They have decided to do it by getting educations, basically walking through that the doors their parents opened and choosing public service in a different way.


VAN SUSTEREN: Governor Palin said this to Sean Hannity about Ifill moderating the debate.


GOV. SARAH PALIN, (R-AK) VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am not going to let it be a concern.

Let me just tell you that John McCain has been in an underdog position before. And this ticket, I think, we can safely say is in an underdog position.

But that just makes us work harder. It makes us want to communicate clearer and more profoundly with the electorate, letting them know what the contrasts are between these two tickets.

It is motivating to me to me, eve, to hear Gwen's comments there, because, again, that will make us work that much harder and that provides even more fairness and objectivity and choices for the voters on November 4 if we try that much harder.


VAN SUSTEREN: Senator McCain said this about Ifill.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that Gwen Ifill is a professional, and I think that she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional.

Does this help that if she has written a book that is favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not, but I have confidence that Gwen Ifill will do a professional job. And I have that confidence.


VAN SUSTEREN: For her part, Ifill said this to the Associated Press-

"I've got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I'm not particularly worried that one day of blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation.

The proof is in the pudding. They can watch the debate tomorrow night and make their own decisions about whether or not I've done my job."

Joining us live is David Mark, senior editor for "The Politico." David, it is really not about her reputation. It is about whether or not the voters out there think that both sides are getting a fair shake.

DAVID MARK, POLITICO: And that is what John McCain was trying to say in that little clip there, to say, yes, I think she is above board, I think she is an objective journalist.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does he have a choice?

MARK: The better percentages for him to be above board, to not go negative on her. He can leave that to people on the sidelines, bloggers, commentators, others. It doesn't behoove him to go negative on her.

Watch Greta's interview

VAN SUSTEREN: Got it. So he says the right thing, Governor Palin said she is not concerned.

But let me tell you, all of the lawyers who email me are scandalized, because a lawyer's code of professional responsibility is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Here we have a moderator who stands to make more money if her book sells more, and it's right in the title. Journalists don't have that.

MARK: I don't think there is much evidence the book itself is slanted towards Obama. We don't know. We have not seen the book.

VAN SUSTEREN: But that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not she is likely to make more money. In fact it could be slanted against them and it could still sell like hotcakes.

MARK: That is a legitimate-that is probably the strongest line of argument against her in this situation, that she stands to profit financially if Barack Obama is sworn in as president on January 20 rather than John McCain at that point.

VAN SUSTEREN: Gwen Ifill has a terrific reputation as being a great journalist. It is unfortunate that this happened now.

But it is troubling that there was--that she did not tell them. It was out in the public domain, but that she did not think to tell the debate commission that she had this book coming out.

MARK: That may be an issue with the debate commission itself. Maybe it did not do its homework, it did not vet her as the other hosts as thoroughly as might have happened. But it was out there, as you say, in the public domain.

VAN SUSTEREN: I should tell you that in the legal business, the responsibility is on the lawyer, and if this were applied to a journalist, the responsibility would be on the journalist, not for the debate commission to go on a hunting expedition and research, and nor for the two candidates, but the person who holds the potential conflict, or the appearance of, has got the obligation.

MARK: I think she has had it out there for some time, at least two or three months, where she was pretty public about it. I do not think she was shouting at the top of her lungs, but it was on Amazon, it was on other forums, so it was available.

VAN SUSTEREN: But that's the research. I will tell you how she could have avoid this totally, if she had said the day she was chosen to the commission, Look, I have this book coming out about Senator Obama. Let's tell both campaigns. If both campaigns are fine, that is OK." Full disclosure always avoid the conflict, or the appearance of it.

MARK: I do not think the McCain campaign, as you say, even knew about this until the last day or so. I think she could have brought it up, but I do not think it would have made that much difference. I think she probably stands on her reputation at PBS and the other places she's worked, and I think she would have been chosen anyway.

VAN SUSTEREN: But that is a reputation in journalism. That's the problem I worry about, the arrogance of journalists generally, is that the American people--my inbox is just flooded with emails from people who are upset.

We in the community might think that we like Gwen, she is a great journalist. But the people out there who are going to vote and are really looking at this debate tomorrow night and are concerned about it, it does not sit well with them.

MARK: I doubt most people even read much about this. They will know something by watching tonight and through other forums.

But I think they will judge her on her performance, the questions she asks, how fair she is to both sides come Thursday night.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you find that journalists are generally fine by this?

MARK: It's a mixed bag. Some are very outraged by it, others say "Eh, what's the big deal?" Most are probably in between. They are saying she probably should have alerted both sides, should have been more public about it, but I do not think it will taint her objectivity.

VAN SUSTEREN: It will be interesting if she actually tries to overextend herself and go after Senator Biden and is unfair to Senator Biden inadvertently.

MARK: Right, to overcompensate and look tougher, as you say, on Biden.

VAN SUSTEREN: The better thing would have been to disclose. This is such an important election that we almost do not need to be poisoned with another controversy.

We are going to get voter fraud allegations. We are going to get all that sort of thing. Had this been disclosed right from the get go, we would not be having this.

MARK: In a sense, if Palin does pretty well on Thursday night, she can say it was even despite a moderator that was not necessarily in my favorite. So it might actually work out well for Palin.

VAN SUSTEREN: All of the viewers who are e-mailing me or are madder than whatever, e-mail David. He wants to hear from you now. I got it. I heard what you have to save.

Anyway, David, thank you.

MARK: Thank you.

Content and Programming Copyright 2008 FOX News Network, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2008 ASC LLC (, which takes sole responsibility for the accuracy of the transcription. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material except for the user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon FOX News Network, LLC'S and ASC LLC's copyrights or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.