Vindicator Logo

PBS’ Ifill hits jackpot as VP debate moderator

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Unlike years past, the vice presidential debate will be heavily watched.

NEW YORK — Being selected the moderator for a vice presidential debate is something like opening a suitcase on “Deal or No Deal” and finding $1,000. Nice prize, but it’s no jackpot.

Not this year. The Thursday showdown between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin will likely put Gwen Ifill before the biggest TV audience of her life.

Given the extraordinary attention paid to the campaign and Palin’s surprise selection as John McCain’s running mate, it stands a strong chance of becoming the most-watched vice presidential debate ever. The standard was the 56.7 million viewers in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman ever selected for a major party ticket.

Ifill, moderator of PBS’ “Washington Week” and senior correspondent on “The NewsHour,” is repeating her role from the 2004 debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. She had never done a debate before that, and admitted she was nervous about the large audience and all the people scrutinizing her performance.

The 2004 experience and work before a live audience during a recent swing of “Washington Week” shows done on the road have toughened her up.

“The biggest pressure you have as a journalist ever is to make sure you get an answer to your question,” said Ifill, whose crowded resume includes The New York Times, The Washington Post and NBC News. “That’s what I’m focusing on — how to ask questions that elicit answers instead of spin, or in this case to elicit engagement between the two.”

The format offers Ifill great freedom. Questions on domestic or international issues are allowed, and it’s up to her to decide the mix.

Colleagues suggest questions. So do viewers, people at her gym or folks she meets on the street. She politely takes them all, recognizing she has no monopoly on wisdom, but it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll use them. Her goal is to help viewers learn something about the candidates they didn’t know.

People sometimes forget it’s a debate, not an inquisition, Ifill said.

“People who watch these debates are incredibly engaged,” she said. “I don’t have to chase the candidates around the table to make them answer questions. The people will know whether a question has been answered or not.”

One competitor said he expects Ifill to do well. Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent, said Ifill would be one of the people he recommends to succeed him as “Face the Nation” host.

“Gwen knows what she’s doing,” Schieffer said. “It’s pretty hard to slip one past her. I think she’ll do a great job.”