The Return of Pre-Debate Ref-Working

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 9 2012 3:00 PM

The Return of Pre-Debate Ref-Working

"Working the refs" is a term I first heard applied to politics by Eric Alterman. In What Liberal Media?, the columnist's Bush-era debunkery of the idea that the press boosts Democrats, Alterman suggested that the entire campaign to shame media figures was meant to slant their coverage. Hassle Dan Rather enough about his bias, and he'll try to correct it by asking different questions.

Case in point:

The Daily Caller — the conservative website that brought you last week's five-year-old Obama video — is currently working on a story about vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, and the fact that her second husband once worked with Barack Obama on the Harvard Law Review.

Haven't we been here before? Yes, we've been to the exact same place. In 2008, PBS News's Gwen Ifill was assigned to moderate the Biden-Palin debate. She was also getting ready to promote The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which would be released after the election. Conservatives pitched a fit, arguing that Ifill would benefit from rigging the game for Biden. Ifill didn't flinch, moderated the highest-rated debate of its kind, and if she experienced any momentary twinge of bias, no one could tell. But the ref was worked.

That said, the case against Ifill -- who'd buy her book if Obama lost? -- is stronger than this apparant case against Raddatz. Her husband worked with Obama in the 1980s? That biases her toward an Obama victory how, exactly? But a nice personal attack like this is sure to have some effect on the ref.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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