PBS’s Gwen Ifill Bemoans Obama’s Scandals as Second-Term ‘Distractions’

We’re halfway through 2013, and PBS’s Washington Week used last Friday’s episode to reflect on the past six months of D.C. politics. During the course of the reflections, moderator Gwen Ifill trotted out the oft-uttered liberal complaint about “distractions” that have impeded President Obama’s second-term agenda so far.

She lamented, “You know, the one thing that's been a common theme throughout this first six months has been distractions. The ways in which pure politics has driven what ends up happening.”


These “distractions,” of course, are what many people refer to as “scandals.” They include the IRS’s targeting of conservative-sounding groups, the administration’s coverup of the nature of the Benghazi attack, the Justice Department’s subpoenaing of Associated Press phone records, and most recently the revelations about the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities.

These scandals have raised serious concerns about the federal government’s power and honesty, yet Ifill sees them merely as “pure politics.” She continued, “[O]n the hill, we spent more time talking about the IRS and Benghazi and the NSA, and privacy and tapping or gathering information from our phones, than almost anything else. And now is that just because it's more interesting to talk about a distraction than to try to get policy done?

I think many journalists would agree that it’s more fun to talk about “distractions” than substantive policy issues. That would explain the media’s fascination in past years with the Dick Cheney shooting incident or the Mark Sanford affair, for example. Would Ifill label those as “distractions” or “pure politics?"

Whether Ifill likes it or not, these scandals are serious issues that deserve Congress’s attention. Susan Davis of USA Today, in response to Ifill’s question, acknowledged that the IRS scandal, at least, had merit: “Well, I do think in -- particularly in the IRS case, there was just such a sense of public outrage to what we had initially learned and what the IRS was doing.”

Below is a transcript of the exchange:

GWEN IFILL: You know, the one thing that's been a common theme throughout this first six months has been distractions. The ways in which pure politics has driven what ends up happening. So let's talk about this a little bit. Sue, on the hill, we spent more time talking about the IRS and Benghazi and the NSA, and privacy and tapping or gathering information from our phones, than almost anything else. And now is that just because it's more interesting to talk about a distraction than to try to get policy done?

SUSAN DAVIS, USA TODAY: Well, I do think in -- particularly in the IRS case, there was just such a sense of public outrage to what we had initially learned and what the IRS was doing. It seems like presidents in second terms, the things that dog them are the things out of their control or the things that happen independent of the decisions they make. We do know that congressional Republicans, certainly in the House, and certainly on the IRS issue, we've seen it on Benghazi already. But they are just getting started on this IRS issue. And even though we have not really seen anything revelatory that's come out of the investigation in terms of actually tying it to the president – in fact, I don’t believe we’ve seen anything that has tied anything to the president -- to President Obama, but there is a determination to make sure that every possible pathway is exhausted before they call it off. So it's not going to go away. Whether there's any substance to it, I'm not even sure it really matters at this point.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.