PBS Ombudsman Says PBS Anchor Should Have Avoided Sebelius-Honoring Event -- and NewsBusters Criticism

My Wednesday blog on PBS anchor Gwen Ifill emceeing a gay group's fundraiser that honored HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for implementing ObamaCare drew some attention across the web, including The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. WashPost media blogger Erik Wemple looked askance at the PBS star's appearance of a conflict of interest. But the strongest response came from PBS ombudsman Michael Getler: he declared Ifill should have skipped the event.

Ifill responded to Wemple's questions by claiming she isn't being paid, she wasn't going to honor Sebelius, and she accepted without knowing of the honor. She was just going to say "welcome," announce some anodyne agenda items, and "announce dessert." The Whitman-Walker Clinic is "just using me as a draw." That's still using her name (and PBS cachet) to raise money for gay-left lobbying, legal services, and health services. Wemple wrote:

Washington Week and the NewsHour, of course, cover the Obama administration as a matter of routine. Sebelius has been at the center of some controversial initiatives. We don’t want Ifill honoring someone she’s supposed to be auditing.

And she’s not, she says. In an interview this morning, Ifill said that she agreed to do the emceeing before she even knew who would be the honoree. She’s doing the event for charity and isn’t collecting a penny for her appearance. The task assigned to her is a mashup of logistics and ceremoniality: According to Whitman-Walker communications director Chip Lewis, Ifill opens the program and says “welcome”; introduces co-chairs; she announces a grant program for the clinic; and she announces dessert.

What she doesn’t do, she attests, is introduce or endorse the honoree, Sebelius. That falls to someone else on the program. “It sounds like I’m honoring her,” says Ifill of the invitation, when in fact the clinic is just “using me as a draw. There’s a difference between what the invite says and what happens on that stage tonight.”

Though unaware that she was signing up for a Sebelius-honoring event, Ifill notes that she didn’t raise a ruckus when she found out who the honoree would be. “I really do try to do the arm’s-length thing,” says Ifill.

Seriously? Whitman Walker posted a YouTube video of Ifill's warm opening remarks:

I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be here tonight. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than to welcome you to Whitman Walker’s Be the Care.....I consider it to be one of the most uplifting and fun events of the year, advancing the issue of quality care in our community...you’ll hear tonight that Be the Care is not just this event that we’re talking about, witnessing tonight. But it is also a rallying cry for individuals and communities to take action, to be our own best health care advocates – whatever the Supreme Court does, whatever the health care laws -- our community’s vitality still depends on us.”

How on Earth is this an “arm’s length thing”? Ifill said she thought this was her third time helping out at a Whitman Walker fundraiser, and clinic director Don Blanchon told her she was "home" and joked about her wearing a boa. It sounded more like a hug, not an arm's-length thing.

Wemple did not ask how she would feel if a PBS or NPR anchor showed up at say, a conservative Catholic event honoring House Speaker John Boehner for resisting ObamaCare. Would anyone on the Left buy that it wouldn't suggest a conservative bias because the anchor was just "announcing dessert" and working for free and doing the "arm's-length thing"? Wemple concluded that unless Ifill pulls out an HHS puff piece in the coming weeks, he'll just count it as a charity event.

At The Huffington Post, Christine Wilkie was more dramatic, that Ifill was "attacked" by NewsBusters.

"This is the first time we've seen an emcee at a WWH event criticized," Chip Lewis, spokesman for the clinic, told HuffPost. "We're a nonprofit community healthcare center serving more than 15,000 patients a year, and we don't turn away people who can't pay for care," he said.

In his post, Graham called the clinic an "LGBT health and advocacy group." Lewis challenged that characterization. "We're not an advocacy group and we don't have a political agenda," he said. "Our agenda is quality healthcare for our community."

Lewis also noted that Ifill, who first emceed an event for the clinic in 2004, will neither introduce Sebelius on stage nor present her with the group's Partner for Life Award. "Gwen has nothing to do with presenting the award at all," he said.

Unlike Wemple, Wilkie avoided quoting the lingo on the invitation which said  “Please join Gwen Ifill, managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent for the PBS News Hour, and the Whitman-Walker family as we honor United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for advancements in health care.” Wemple presented the Media Research Center as "conservative" (correct), and then lets Whitman Walker claim to be nonpolitical (that's just untrue).

Really? On March 28, less than a month ago, the clinic's chief medical officer Ray Martins wrote an op-ed in the gay Washington Blade newspaper headlined "Health care is a critical social justice issue." It began: "When it comes to social justice and equality for the LGBT community, we are well versed in policy issues like marriage rights, bullying of LGBT children and adolescents, and workplace discrimination. It is not surprising that these three issues are foremost in our collective thoughts as the issues are extensively covered in gay and mainstream media outlets." That doesn't sound nonpolitical to me.

PBS ombudsman Getler worked with Ifill at The Washington Post. (In his column, he could have mentioned they both worked with reporter Ceci Connolly, who is a member of the Whitman Walker Board of Directors, which may be the personal link here.) Before she left the Post in 2010, Connolly wrote a pro-ObamaCare book with the title "Landmark."

Graham also reported that "Washington PBS superstation WETA — which produces both Ifill shows — did not return a call for comment." They should have. I'm sure they don't like NewsBusters, which often is critical of some aspect of the NewsHour and sometimes, in my opinion, uses strident language and alleged motivations in making their points. But when there is another side of a story it is best to tell it at the time. The explanations never really catch up.

Ifill told Getler:

This is the second or third time I've emceed an event for Whitman Walker. I try to do at least one pro bono event for a Washington charity I care about every year. I've also twice emceed events for the N Street Village women's shelter. I accepted this invitation months ago without knowing who was getting their award. I do not serve in any capacity at WW, had no input into the awardee and did not vet it in any way. That said, when I saw they were giving the award to Secretary Sebelius, I didn't object. I keep arms' length from those sorts of decisions on purpose. I am trying to do a good deed, not sit as judge or jury about who they choose to honor. I am not even the one presenting the award to Secretary Sebelius. I open the event, introduce the Chief Medical Officer Ray Martins, and he presents the award. I advise guests to take part in the silent auction, and send them off to dessert, and we're out of there by 9 if I have anything to do with it."

Then he offered his thoughts after one obnoxious liberal begged him not to "validate" NewsBusters, those haters and bullies and racists:

And, as I sat down to write this morning, the first email in my inbox was from Kelley Jones of Sacramento, Calif. She wrote: "Please do not validate Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, with any form of response to his criticism of Gwen Ifill over her decision to serve as emcee at Thursday's annual fundraiser for Whitman-Walker Health. I hope and trust that PBS will be of service to its listening audience by standing-up to the bullyism, hatred and thinly veiled racism that dominates the American conservative social agenda."

In my gut, I agree with Wemple. Ifill is not likely to put her journalistic credentials in jeopardy by going soft in her reporting or moderating as a result of sharing a billing at a charity event with Secretary Sebelius.

But — and there always seems to be a "but" in ombudsman columns — I also don't fault NewsBusters for pointing this out. There are media-watch groups on the left and right, and tied to hundreds of other special interests. To anybody in the middle or on the receiving end of their focus, they are at times annoying and often anger-producing because they may make a fair point but then use it in unfair ways. Still, the basic points they call attention to are often worthy challenges and need to be addressed.

And, although I am confident about Ifill's journalistic integrity — having known her, watched her, and worked with her for some years at The Washington Post — my vote would have been to bow out of this event. I felt the same way in 2006 when PBS talk show host Charlie Rose was listed as among the hosts for a New York dinner party honoring the CEO of Wal-Mart a few months after Rose had a rare interview with him.

In addition to the two phrases cited at the top of this column, I would add another for journalists: "When in doubt, don't do it."

....So, while a high-profile reporter with a major news operation would probably feel it foolish for anyone to believe he or she could be influenced by such things, it is not foolish to think that others might, and that the perception just isn't worth the risk.

Back in October 2008, I also wrote about Ifill in a controversy that also sprung up first on conservative websites and among conservative commentators. It involved her selection to moderate the then high-stakes vice-presidential nominee debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

At the time, Ifill was writing a book titled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." The title of my column was "The Doctrine of No Surprises," because questions never were asked by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates — for example, are you working on anything we should know about? — and Ifill didn't bring it up.

When the latest NewsBusters criticism arrived, I messaged producers at both of the programs Ifill appears on and asked under what PBS, WETA or program editorial guidelines is this appearance okay? I haven't heard back yet, although I did get that candid explanation from Ifill. Producers for both of these programs routinely put out first-class news and public affairs offerings. Yet I suspect — and I stress that I don't know — that the no surprises doctrine might have been missing in action again and something that seemed like a good deed got punished without being known about, discussed or thought through.

There is still another saying that journalists understand, and that is when you walk into a major newspaper or network, you leave a lot of luggage at the door, including sacrificing some personal freedoms. That is because the credibility of the news organizations is more important than anything else.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis