The A List with Alison Lebovitz – Season 3, Episode 13: Gwen Ifill

The A List with Alison Lebovitz – Season 3, Episode 13: Gwen Ifill


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tailored solutions
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As the first ever african-american woman to host a major
national news and public affairs program
Gwen Ifilll has experienced her share of
challenges I don’t go around with a chip
on my shoulder but i have awareness and
i consider the awareness something that
you can use to your advantage because
being underestimated is a great thing
because you can always exceed people’s
expectations that way and so I just let
them be the ones who are limited and I
try to move around and past it.
Find out how she deals with living in the public
eye and becoming a role model tonight on
the a-list I sit down with PBS senior
correspondent Gwen Ifill.
once again live from Washington
moderator Gwen Ifill
good evening we begin tonight with the
dramatic events in Egypt and the
ramifications they may have four US
policy in the region every friday as
moderator and managing editor for
Washington week Gwen Ifill host and
in-depth roundtable discussion that
takes a closer look at what’s been
happening in the world of politics
she is a senior correspondent for PBS
Newshour a best-selling author and a
respected political analyst her
reputation for a student journalism and
dedication to maintaining objectivity
has served her well over the course of
her career and as you will see there are
many facets to this political insider
Gwen welcome to the a-list we’re
thrilled to have you
thank you alison so when did you know
you wanted to be a journalist I kind of
obnoxiously young I wanted to be a
journalist when I was maybe nine years
old I knew I like to write I knew I
liked to tell stories at the time I
thought I could make up things but then
in our house we always got newspapers we
always were exposed to the news around
us our parents always made the
connection between what was happening in
the world of what was happening in our
lives and so I like the idea of being
able to get a byline get an actual name
my name in the newspaper
I like the idea of asking questions and
making people answer me because my
parents would not and i like the idea of
just writing it all down and telling the
story so I always wanted to be a
journalist I didn’t want me television
journalism but I aggressively did not
want to be on television
why is that it just seems shallow in and
I was right
is it seemed kind of shallow and
unnecessary I loved newspaper still do
love the smell of them of the feel of
them love being able to write at some
length and so that’s what I really
wanted to do and and I’d locked out
I got to do it right away and what was
your first job out of college at the
Boston Herald American right after i got
a simmons college I had an internship
at the herald the summer before in which
I got the job in an odd way I actually
was a good little doobie and I was a
gopher I would carry things from one
place to another one day I came to work
and i found that someone had left a note
at my workspace with racial slur on it
which I won’t repeat and my response was
to look at it into think I wonder who
this is for
I was just so wide-eyed about the idea
that someone would say this to someone
else that occurred to me belatedly oh
this was for me I showed it to my boss
was horrified he showed it to his boss
was horrified they all promised they
would this is a terrible thing they
didn’t want to fire the guy who had done
it was nearing retirement and they said
if you ever need a job come back and i
thought i’ll never go back these people
are racist I’ll never work for them
except that the next year when my bike
45th job rejection came in i said i know
that haha it looks really good so I did
go and take the job at the newspaper and
it turned out that i learned an
important lesson which is you can get
you can get in anyway but then once you
get in you still have to prove yourself
and that’s what I set out to do
how much of a challenge was it for you
as not just a woman but african-american
woman to make it as a journalist at that
age
well you know I think I was it stood me
in good stead that I was so wide eyed
about it the fact that i didn’t know
that that slur was intended for me tell
you a little bit about the way I was
raised
we weren’t a raise to have chips on our
shoulder and immediately assume in salt
on the other hand we were also raised to
be aware that if there is insult in the
world but as a result i had my first
instinct one so if someone counted me
out or underestimated me was never to
say oh they hate me because I’m a woman
or they hate me because I was black i
just have to prove to them they were
wrong for whatever their reason was for
underestimated me I had to prove they
were wrong which meant i worked harder
and didn’t spend a whole lot of time
that are now thinking why do they not
like me I would just make them like me
or at least make them respect me
do you think that mentality stem from
the fact that your father was a minister
that’s a big part of it and another big
part of it is my parents are immigrants
my mother was born in barbatus my father
was born in Panama and there’s something
about immigrants they come to this
country and they have already made this
remarkable decision in their lives to
uproot their families bring them here
in order to get a better life it’s a
kind of heroic thing when you think
about it and immigrants were tough on
their kids they’re saying doggone it I
brought you here and you’re going to
excel and as a result all my brothers
and sisters and I were told they are
going to college was never an option we
were told we what we were going to
accomplish things it was never an option
and that also gets you over a lot of
bumps these values and still by her
parents aided Gwen and beginning her
remarkable career in journalism and it
was her work for two of the most
prestigious newspapers in the country
the Washington Post and The New York
Times that enabled her transition into
television news taking a job as chief
congressional correspondent with NBC
when learned firsthand what it’s like to
move from behind the scenes into the
watchful public i tell me about the
transition between being a writer and
being on air hard
no one that tells you that it’s hard to
talk on television and to worry that
your hair is right your makeup is right
in that you’re speaking in complete
sentences and that you’re writing to
match pictures instead of just writing
this story so the person why I went out
to cover story when I worked for NBC I
went out without a camera crew I kind of
forgot that i needed a camera crew with
me to tell the story and learning I got
over that bath but there were a lot of
adjustments i had to make but I Tim
Russert that was a great friend and he’s
want to talk me into leaving the New
York Times to work for NBC News and he
kind of dared me
versailles like I don’t want to do that
i’m not interested in that Tim I’ll come
on meet the press i love that that’s
fine i don’t want to do that he said
coward
you know you kind of dared me and end up
but also he then made sure i succeeded
it was the best kind of Mentor he gave
me a producer who knew what they were
doing incredible patience with me
match me up with the camera crews who
were like that’s all right honey do it
again
they are very patient and in and wanted
to teach me and as a result I got to the
point where i learned more and more when
people had faith in me and when I came
to the NewsHour they said oh well you’ll
fill in for gym later so
time you’ll anger and I said I don’t
want to anchor on anchor they said I’m
not yet you can do it and when people
say you can do something it’s amazing
how you can rise to the occasion
if you have if you’re willing to work at
your skills so television was different
because you had a bigger bigger impact
and that was hard to resist but it’s
been a different way of telling the
story and and still the journalism I
want to always to do how much control do
you have specifically over the content
between the NewsHour in Washington week
the NewsHour it’s a little bit different
because of the NewsHour was a very
collaborative process there are a lot of
us but in the end once we have an
assignment
we’re pretty much on our own about how
to do it and who the guests are and we
have we have staffs who figure out with
huge rolodexes if we still have those
things and and who we can talk to and
who are the best experts and what’s the
perfect mix and it’s kind of a chemistry
experiment every day how to put together
a news our conversation Washington weeks
a little different cause it’s like a
sandbox i get my sandbox with my friends
and we toss things back and forth and we
have and I bring the smartest people i
now have written the most interesting
stories that week about the big issues
and then we put together a little dinner
party that everybody else out there gets
to eavesdrop and listen in on so it’s
it’s a different set of and I have to
like you
if you don’t come on I gotta like you
and so as a result its people pick up on
that at home they pick up that we like
and respect each other and it’s fun i
love the getting of Washington week when
the announcer says you know reporting on
history as it has as it happens and
there’s so much truth to that not only
because of being clearly as soon as you
report on it is history because we have
such a short memory but the fact that
you’re making an indelible imprint on
not only you know whatever the news is
at the time but on the impressions of
the public how important to you is that
that’s always timely and also always as
we said before impartial it’s really
important on friday because we’re on
Friday nights we are the leading edge of
the weekend we’re two days before the
sunday shows where at the end of a week
and but and and often I find over the
years people Barry stories on Friday
hoping they’ll get lost
so we often find ourselves on Friday
ripping the show up from what we thought
we were going to do thursday because the
president has decided to me oh I think
I’ll fire this guy on friday afternoon
and they hope to sweep it under the rug
so we try to stay on top of things and
current because we have to bring added
value many of our viewers of people who
already know what the headlines are and
they’ve been following the news maybe
they’ve been watching the news hour and
so I’m gonna give them another reason to
hang around for an extra half an hour on
friday night and a lot enough of them do
and that I know that there’s a hunger
for someone to save what is it mean I
don’t understand why that happened or
put it in context or I really want to
hear what one of our panelists is Martha
Raddatz from ABC who goes abroad a lot
into the war zones and I want to know
what she saw
I mean we want to bring something they
wouldn’t get someplace else and and that
to me is why
also it’s important to be impartial
because people have to trust that you’re
telling them that you’re giving them the
straight skinny and that you’re not
polluting it with opinion because there
are lots of places to go if you want
opinion I mean in that same but you
can’t miss opinion if you turn on your
television anymore you can you know you
just can’t but on our program we’re
thinking you know what figure it out for
yourself
we’re going to tell you why this
happened we’re going to explain what’s
happening behind the scenes what we
heard what’s in the back of our
notebooks that we didn’t get to report
otherwise then you make sense of that
figure out what that means
I think we betrayed trust that we start
to tell them what we think
it is this unwavering dedication to
maintaining and partiality as well as
her reputation for keen political
analysis that has enabled Gwen Ifill to
bring so much to Washington week since
taking the job in 1999 she has helped to
greatly brought in the viewership for
the show by reaching out to younger
demographics and in 2004 when skillet
moderating the complex issues and
personalities on Washington week
facilitated a new and exciting
opportunity
what was your first reaction when you’re
asked to moderate that debate in 2004
between chain Ian Edwards i was thrilled
i had never done anything of that I
moderated debates before but nothing on
that scale Jim layer my boss had done
several of them in this out first thing
I did was go to him and say I what
should I do
and his response to me was well you just
keep all your questions to yourself and
focus i thought oh because and he made a
good point which is that all the
campaigns have people whose full-time
job it is to figure out what is it that
you’re going to ask the candidate and
your job is to make sure they don’t know
and the best way to do that is to be as
discreet as possible about your research
about how you’re preparing about the
order of the questions and you have to
worry about the timing and that it’s
fair there’s an equivalent number on
some level both campaigns have said it’s
ok that they not they’ve approved your
presence there which means that he
either they hate you equally or they
like you equally but either way you have
to be very and I’m very conscious of the
fact that I’m carrying questions for
millions of people who don’t get a
chance to ask them and that the subject
matter especially for vice presidential
debate is often foreign policy and
domestic policy because there’s only one
debate and so you have to squeeze a lot
in there and being driven by the notion
that you’re telling people who this
person is and whether they should be a
heartbeat away from the presidency it’s
not in town sequential decision so it’s
it’s a little daunting but worth it was
the hardest most exciting thing I’ve
ever done how different is it preparing
for a moderator role and being a
journalist
it’s the same set of skills you have the
only thing is that you’re confined by
time constraints I mean the set of
skills are asking questions listing for
answers the listing is the hard part by
the way because sometimes you don’t want
someone to say and then I killed my wife
and you go okay next you want to have
heard that well and so you want to do
that and you want it all and you’re also
very conscious of the fact that you’re
not sitting on the front row of history
just because you’re a nice person you’re
sitting there because you represent
someone in your carrying questions for
other people too
that’s all journalism to me the
performance part which comes from big on
television is helpful because you want
to go for clarity but beyond that I
don’t really worry so much about that as
I do about my asking the right questions
and am I making a reasonable effort
short of chasing them around the table
which I will not do to get a clear
answer
has there ever been a time where you’ve
been asked by the cover story or to
moderate something and you had to turn
it down because you didn’t think you
could apply that sort of impartiality to
it
no now I’ve turned down things mostly
because of scheduling questions or
because it’s a the the event itself
seemed partisan to me and I didn’t want
to be involved in event sponsored for
instance just for the democratic party
or just by the Republican Party I’m very
conscious of the fact that we have to
maintain our down the middle pneus and
it’s not because i myself a point of
view that I want that I can’t that I
feel like I have to tamp down it’s
mostly I was unconscious of perceptions
and I so I stayed down the middle as
much as possible
well since you mentioned perceptions
what about the fact that your book was
coming out just a few months after the
vice-presidential vain 2008 and the
criticism you got related to that
well that was that was an interesting
test because i was in that zone i was
describing where you’re just focused on
the debate or questions you’re going to
ask I I two days before the debate i
fell down at home broke my ankle and was
about to have that was going to have to
have surgery after the debate was over
so i went to st. Louis on crack
isn’t in a wheelchair which was really
fun and on pain medication which I could
not take during the debate in case
anyone accuse me of being on drugs so
they’re a little bit of pressures and
then in the middle of this all a book i
have been writing which was in plain
sight i’d written about it in Newsweek I
mean time magazine actually it had been
published have been publicized for some
months but people who were trying to
take my impartiality grab hold of this
is sahaj she’s writing a book about
Barack Obama well I wasn’t writing a
book about Barack Obama i was writing a
book about breakthrough candidates of
which barack obama was one of them this
this generation of young black elected
officials who had decided to take the
college cuddle their parents have left
when they had marched in civil rights
marches open these doors and now there
was this generation of people walking
through and identified four key
characters one of which was Obama but a
lot of others as well who had traveled
the country and matt and wanted to write
the story about public service so this
is the book I’m writing
I knew I consciously did not write the
Barack Obama chapter because i didn’t
know what’s going to happen
I didn’t know who’s going to win the
election and frankly I was one of the
last people who got barack obama was
going to win
I honestly didn’t think we’re ready for
it yet so but because i didn’t know the
outcomes
I didn’t want to write the chapter i
just i purposely in my own mind kept
arm’s length so I was being attacked for
something i had gone out of my way not
to do and that the I was vindicated in
the end because when the book came out
all my critics fell silent because I
realized it was what I said it was her
book the breakthrough politics and race
in the age of obama became a national
bestseller and with its success gwen
received praise for her in-depth look at
the landscape of contemporary American
politics in light of President Obama’s
history-making victory with such a long
list of accomplishments she has become a
role model to a new generation of young
aspiring professionals but for Gwen as
with the president there is always one
word that seems to enter the equation
when do you think if ever that race
won’t be an issue when will no longer
say this was the first african-american
to do X this is the first
african-american to be this then we move
past that how to be with light for us to
get past it like tomorrow
part of me thinks that won’t happen in
our lifetimes and part of me doesn’t
know if it’s necessary
I mean I don’t think it’s a bad idea to
notice we’re taking note of race
I just don’t think it should be
something that holds people back so if
you look at me and you say to me I don’t
I didn’t notice you were black i would
just think you were blind you would
think but what’s wrong why would not you
notice that I was black but i want you
to notice is that I’m black but it’s not
important in a negative way because race
can be a positive i consider it to be
and most people i know most
african-americans I know considered the
race to be a positive something that
adds to their life to say that you to
ignore it is to assume that there’s
something negative about it because if
you thought it was a good thing you
would want to notice it so part of me
thinks this whole idea of a culture
where race blind is overstated yet would
be nice to stop having firsts it would
be nice not to be at would be thrilled
if I was not the only african-american
woman hosting them that national news
and public affairs show thrilled but
we’re not there yet and the next time
someone else gets a job like this it’ll
be another breakthrough the next time a
woman runs and actually gets elected
president it’ll be another breakthrough
we’re going to live through firsts for a
while yet
so what’s the key what do you think the
most important message to teach this
next generation of adolescents and
children is to hopefully not make them
colorblind but make them color friendly
you know I think they’re doing it
without us
I i talked to our godson who’s 14 years
old and I remember when Barack Obama was
elected I said look a black president
that he looked at me when haha so yeah
can I go play now play with his asian
friends and his latino friends and his
white friends in some ways we are in our
generation kind of more obsessed about
it because we kind of live through a
time in which it was combining we’re
raising in many cases children who are
not as confined by it and that’s
excellent at some point they may realize
there’s a negative where there’s a
conflict or there’s friction
but by and large we’re raising a
generation who are better at it than we
were and that gives me great hope how
seriously you take the responsibility to
share that ideal and kind of that
message with the next generation and
specifically that generation of of young
black aspiring professionals huge it’s
huge and I don’t know how I could I
don’t know how anybody could want to
walk away from that I mean there’s some
athletes who say I’m not a role model
and more power to them they may be
richer than i am and can afford not to
be but I was raised differently i was
raised that everything you do has an
impact and it and I have a positive
impact if you can control that and I
can’t look at the eyes of a young black
girl who but for one little option in
the her life could have a great great
life a great comfort filled life and one
little limitation couldn’t maybe she
didn’t get to go to preschool because
her mother couldn’t afford it maybe she
is the child of a single mother maybe
she’s not maybe she’s smart as a whip
but just can’t apply herself
how do I know that her just seeing me
doing it might not be the thing that
changes her that puts her on the right
path that inspires her that’s not really
very hard for me to do just to be an
example and then take the next step in
and apply that example to the individual
young people I know in my life who I
make sure I have high expectations of as
well
the example that Gwen Ifill has set has
been remarkable pushing through barriers
of gender and race throughout her career
the success that she has achieved is no
small feat Washington week remains the
longest-running news and public affairs
program on television and with such a
revered voice at the helm speaking out
for the value of public broadcasting
there is no doubt that Gwen Ifill will
continue reporting history as it happens
and asking the questions that matter
I read that in the 40 plus year history
of Washington week there’s only one time
where the show was threatened to even
not exist and i might be carrying it a
little too far i think during the Nixon
administration in 1972 and what saved it
was the audience and how many letters
they got of support
how important do you take that into
consideration how important is your
audience and and then you know and
support especially a PBS station and a
PBS program it in the days we mean when
people wrote letters
yes yes we would we still we get letters
but very occasionally mostly emails
they’re incredibly important because if
they don’t speak when they feel that
something of value is threatened then we
operate and avoid if i have it without
an audience that is engaged i’m just
talking to the camera which is a piece
of equipment if I’m talking through that
camera into someone who’s sitting at
home who saying hey go and tell me which
is what’s going on
I want them also the field that I’ve
made an investment in them and that they
made an investment in me at times like
this when Congress is having one of
their periodic debates but public media
and whether we should exist it’s kind of
important to hear from the viewers and
to hear from someone who says for
instance i’m in chattanooga I think
Public Television is great because i
like big bird but I also think it’s
great because i like the fact that my
local station covers my community it’s
not just about the NewsHour Washington
week it’s about what local stations do
what they bring and which nobody else
brings by the way it’s pretty unique and
even on the national level the
Washington week when it started was the
only thing of its kind of reporters
roundtable than a million other shows
followed then it morphed into an opinion
opinion shot where everybody with had
opinions and now we’ve come full circle
Washington week once again this one of
the only things of its type that exists
that means i think there’s a niche for
it and I we need to hear that as much as
possible from our folks what’s been the
biggest challenge of your job
the biggest challenge my job is saying
no to things i want to do everything and
people want me to do everything
it’s cut its a girl challenge because we
always say okay let’s say i’ll be there
and then you think what was I thinking
on the other hand I don’t want to say no
to the thing that might just bring me
some added value and so I’m always
trying to stretch myself a little too
thin but i would have come to realise
probably just in the last few years as I
thought about it how valuable what I do
for a living is and that the grass is
green under my feet and not someplace
else and so I try to focus as much as
possible and the things that i do that i
love and as opposed to things that i do
that i make me crazy i shouldn’t do that
stress the over stress stretching myself
too thin stuff because i get to do i
still get to do what I got into this
business to do which is to sit on the
front row and ask questions and demand
answers
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