PBS Star Gwen Ifill Complains of 'Non-stories' from Mandela Funeral, But She Spread 'Cheney Parka-gate'

PBS NewsHour anchor and Washington Week host Gwen Ifill editorialized that the media coverage of the Nelson Mandela memorial service was marred by “non-stories” like President Obama’s “selfie” and his handshake with a Cuban dictator.

First heal thyself, taxpayer-funded liberal journalist. In 2005, it was this same Gwen Ifill that eagerly spread the non-story that Vice President Cheney -- the one with heart trouble -- wore a parka to an outdoor Auschwitz ceremony, doing the bidding of her outraged liberal buddy Robin Givhan:

IFILL: One more thing before we go. On occasion, most of you know, we like to point out the faux pas of people in power. Look at this: The scene is the official observance of the liberation of Auschwitz, a sober ceremony attended by world leaders, all, it seems, dressed in black, except -- yup, that's Dick Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney. What was he thinking? Write us at washingtonweek@pbs.org and tell us your guess. We are way too polite to speculate -- not on camera, anyway. And thank you to Robin Givhan, the fashion writer at the Washington Post, for catching that for us.

How on Earth did Cheney's choice of coat become newsworthy? It's not like Cheney wore a Nazi arm band. He wore a heavy coat. Givhan wrote an impassioned critique for The Washington Post headlined "Dick Cheney, Dressing Down: Parka, Ski Cap at Odds With Solemnity of Auschwitz Ceremony." Givhan complained that for the ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp, Cheney "was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower."

In her "Gwen's Take" commentary posted on both the NewsHour and Washington Week websites, Ifill complained that the big picture is lost, which was the Great Man focus: "This week’s memorials for the great South African leader Nelson Mandela provided three glaring cases in point." You have to love that Ifill confesses she played with the selfie story herself (off air):

The first wave of foggy coverage occurred when President Obama shared a passing polite handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro. The world did not shake. Communism did not end. Cuban émigrés in Miami did not take to the streets. Yet, the greeting dominated coverage and analysis (overshadowing an actual kiss the president accorded Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who had canceled a state visit to Washington earlier this year over a national security spying dispute)....

The other non-story that overwhelmed coverage of a historic day was fun but excessive. I admit I shared the picture of the president posing for a "selfie" with the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Denmark on Twitter. It was cute. It was funny, especially because Michelle Obama seemed so unamused.

But never in a million years did I think it would consume (and obscure) so much of the Mandela coverage. Is it because we can't resist a caption contest?

And then there was the story of the fake interpreter. There is no question it was an insult to the world's deaf and an international security threat to have a man on stage whose defense for not knowing sign language was that he could be violently schizophrenic.

But did that deserve more attention on a day when thousands gathered in Pretoria -- in long lines that reminded me of the first free South African elections -- to pay final tribute to Mandela?

I never cease to marvel how efficiently we can minimize real news -- whether it be rare proof that Washington has a little bipartisanship left, or history unfolding on another continent.

I'd feel a little better if we could at least try to remember the big picture.


For the record, the PBS NewsHour did not touch the "selfie" story, brushed over the fake interpreter in two anchor briefs, and played down the Castro handshake. ifill even presented without irony the Cuban dictator speaking about brave dissidents sticking to their ideas:

GWEN IFILL: And Cuban President Raul Castro paid special tribute to Mandela’s call for reconciliation after winning his long fight for freedom.

RAUL CASTRO, Cuban President (through translator): I remember at this moment his bond of affection with Fidel Castro. Fidel has said -- and I quote -- "Nelson Mandela will not go down in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent incarcerated without ever renouncing his ideas; he will go down in history because he was capable of cleaning up his soul from the poison that such an unfair punishment could have planted there."

IFILL: At one point, President Obama greeted Castro with a handshake, a gesture that drew attention around the world. White House aides later described it as an unplanned encounter.

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