Spin Cycle

08.05.12

Gwen Ifill: Debates Are a Minefield

PBS host on Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and pressure to be punchy

With moderators about to be announced for the fall debates, there’s a good chance that Gwen Ifill will again get the nod.

Video screenshot

 “Moderating debates is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the host of PBS’s Washington Week telle me in a video interview. “I’ve written books, I’ve covered White Houses, I’ve interviewed royalty. But sitting on that stage is hard for reasons that have nothing to do with just the fact that 67 million people are watching your back.”

Ifill, who has moderated the last two vice-presidential debates, says that “you had to stick to time cues, you had to find a way to think of questions where you might get an honest answer, maybe, that’s not just the rote for both of the candidates. And you have to listen to their answers, just in case they say something like ‘I killed my wife.’ You want to know!”

In 2008, she says, “it wasn’t until later on that I discovered things like Sarah Palin winked, I didn’t see that. I didn’t hear her say, ‘Can I call you Joe?’”

And by the way, debate commission, she's available.

Ifill calls the current campaign “boring” but “important.” And while she thinks the media focus too much on gaffes, “to the extent these little distractions tell us something, almost always, about who these men are who want to be president, I think that’s worth doing.”

Washington Week may be a “safe house” from all the “fights and yelling and screaming” on television, she says, but management wasn’t always satisfied with the tone. “Even at PBS, years ago, there was a discussion about how do you punch it up. But you have to make the balance of, do you lose viewers who are coming to you precisely because people finish their sentences?”