Gwen Ifill

The host of PBS's "Washington Week in Review" and correspondent for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" is a fan of civil conversation, good writing and the Washington Mystics.

By Robert Margolis

Published December 18, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Gwen Ifill reminds me of Walt "Clyde" Frazier, the legendary basketball star and ex-New York Knick. Like Frazier, Ifill, the 44-year-old senior correspondent at "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and host of "Washington Week in Review," maintains an external sense of cool and serenity, while underneath lie serious smarts, smooth execution and a healthy dose of skepticism -- all qualities that make Ifill a natural to moderate "Washington Week," the 33-year-old TV talk show. If the higher-ups at PBS thought that removing the program's previous moderator, Ken Bode, would give them a political shoutfest, they were wrong.

After attending Simmons College, an all-women's school in Boston, Ifill was hired by the Boston Herald in 1977. It was a gig that put her, an African-American, into the fire, as she arrived during that city's notorious busing crisis. After leaving the Herald and covering Maryland politics for the Baltimore Sun (along with New York Times writer and "Washington Week" regular Richard Berke), Ifill joined the staff of the Washington Post. During her seven-year stint at the Post, she began to appear on "Washington Week" as a panelist. After leaving the Post in 1991, Ifill became a congressional correspondent and covered the White House for the New York Times.

She was wooed by numerous networks, and finally came to terms with NBC in 1994. Her charge there included on-air reportage, covering the White House, Capitol Hill and presidential campaigns. Ifill spent five years with the network; the Public Broadcasting Service approached her with job offers twice during that period. She was first courted for the "Washington Week" job months before accepting it. According to sources, Ifill was irked at PBS's treatment of Bode, who was ousted after refusing to turn "Washington Week" into a version of "The McLaughlin Group." But after PBS added the prestigious job of senior correspondent along with Jim Lehrer to the package, she and her agent, with some help from "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert, negotiated an out clause to her agreement with NBC, and Ifill became an employee of PBS.

Since joining the "NewsHour" and "Washington Week," Ifill has become a major media star. She recently spoke with me from her Virginia office.

There's a certain serenity that comes across during your broadcasts. You rarely seem to get ruffled.

I guess people who know me can tell when I'm ruffled. You know what it is? I honestly believe that bad news will find you and the good news doesn't, so you have to focus on what's good in your life and work -- take it a step at a time.

The only time I was nervous on television was at NBC when I had to do live shots for the "NBC Nightly News," covering the White House. I can't explain why, but there was something about it that made me conscious that millions of people were watching. I'm usually smart enough to figure it out, that it's not brain surgery and it's not the most important thing in the world, and combine all those thoughts with a pretty good grasp of the subject matter. You get to be calm about it. I try not to sweat all the small stuff -- which wasn't a bad book! The little stuff I can handle.

As for having a grasp of the material, how do you acquire that knowledge considering you do relatively in-depth interviews each day at the "NewsHour"? Isn't there a danger of having only a surface grasp of complex issues?

That happens all the time in television, much more so than in print. I was a print reporter for 15 years. When you are in print, you cover a beat. You learn to immerse yourself and you know everybody involved with your beat. For instance, covering the White House was supposed to be a prestige job, but the reporters who cover it best do so by not covering the White House. They cover it by talking to people in the State Department or in Congress. You come at the story in as many ways as possible with the "NewsHour." It is fascinating, because every single day I might have a different subject that I am not an expert on. It demands that I read four or five papers a day, and have at least a cursory knowledge of everything that's going on, whether it's overthrows in the Ivory Coast or the latest tracking numbers on a campaign here. By the end of the day, you might have to speak to leading participants in the Middle East crisis or the governor of Minnesota.

Your first job was at the Boston Herald during the busing crisis of the late '70s.

The tail end of the crisis. I was only there for three years. My first writing job at the Herald was writing about food. That was the one writing job that was open. I couldn't cook, so that was the job where I figured out you could write about anything at day's end that you knew nothing about that morning. When I started covering school boards in Boston, that was my first taste of politics. It was very political in that city. It was full of colorful characters and there were literally riots going on in high schools that I didn't feel safe going to cover in person.

Objectivity or fairness?

Fairness. No one is truly objective -- considering everyone has his or her own worldview, or a veil of experience that you bring to whatever you do. I was covering the Department of Housing and Urban Development at the Post, and was probably the only reporter at the Post who had ever lived in public housing. So I brought that experience into my worldview of who these people are that who in public housing.

Where was that?

In Buffalo [N.Y.] and Staten Island. As a result, I didn't automatically think people who lived in public housing were a bunch of slackers. You want your experience to inform your writing, not color it. And that's why, when people look at me and make assumptions about what I believe, I like to point to a transcript and tell what it really shows. If I'm doing my job you can't really tell [what I believe], so long as you remove your preconceptions about me from your analysis. What I really want to believe is that someone will be honest with me and answer my question. What's nice about the "NewsHour" is that there can be more than two positions on an issue. There's usually eight!

One always reads about the liberal media bias in any number of publications.

Like Salon?

So noted. Has the media's coverage of the presidential campaign added or taken away credence regarding that claim?

I think that perception has always been flawed. What you see happening is reporters' desperate attempts to present a balanced picture. That means that sometimes they overcompensate for having tilted one way or the other. We are always tipping back and forth, which is why pundits on either side can always find something to complain about. But if you look at the big picture, what we try to do is tilt toward the best story.

The "NewsHour" and "Washington Week" skew heavily toward a viewership of people over 55, and there are many efforts underway to get the 18-to-34 age group watching. Is there a lack of civic engagement among the 35-to-55-year-old bloc?

I don't know. I'm involved in "YVote 2000," which works out of the Medill School of Journalism. There's been a big e-vote thing, and of course MTV has been working hard to recruit younger folks. There's been a bigger effort this year than ever before to get the younger folks involved in the political process. Yet there seems to be as much resistance as ever -- partly, I think, because of the definition of what the political process is. Young folks are more likely to think that public service is separate from politics. Whereas when JFK talked about public service, he was talking about politics. These days that means Americorps or volunteerism. The two spheres are totally different in their minds. Now, when you get to their parents in that middle age bloc, you have this incredibly harried population of parents who are rushing their kids to soccer practice, working 50 hours a week, and the last thing they think they have time for is to sit down and engage in a public affairs program.

One of the reasons that our audiences at both "Washington Week" and the "NewsHour" skew to older people is because they have more time to look at in-depth programs. The middle-aged folks, once their kids leave home, can catch their breaths and watch our type of programming. This was also true at NBC. Their political and news shows also skew toward the older population. That was a constant dilemma. They tried to target older women. If you look at the last half of an NBC news program, you can see who it is aimed at.

Is the more civil atmosphere of "Washington Week," compared to other political talk shows, a difference that you count on to attract viewers?

Yes. We are counting on a backlash to the shout shows. People are ready for, and interested in, a civil discourse that has more to do with "This is why this happened and this is what happened behind the scenes" than "This is what I think." I scold my reporters if they tell us what they think. I don't have them on there for their opinions. I have them on the show to tell me what happened backstage. I think it's a much more interesting discussion that way because it explains why things happen. It's amazing how little we know about why things happen.

When I was at the New York Times, we used to have a "tick-tock," where we would reconstruct how a major event happened, who was in the room, etc. Those would always make the most interesting stories. What the president was wearing or saying -- those little details tell me more about the way government functions and about what connections it does or does not have with your life.

Did PBS want you to add more drama and shouting when it asked you to run "Washington Week"?

I was a panelist then. I understand that at the time they wanted it to be more of a "McLaughlin Group" type of thing. I didn't know one panelist on the show who agreed with that wish. We had all chosen to be on "Washington Week" because we thought of it as a good civil place where we could cover our stories and still face the people we covered on Monday morning -- without getting grief.

The beauty of having reporters on who cover beats is that they have to face their sources Monday and they can't be irresponsible and say anything that pops into their head on Friday night. And that means we have people who are a little more accountable for what they write and say. So we resisted any effort to make this a show where you saw the same four people sitting around and sharing their opinions every week. When we fail it's when we have someone on just spouting something they read rather than talking about what they cover. I tried to make the case that we can make the show more in the moment without going overboard. That's the balance we try for. Politics doesn't have to be taken that seriously all the time. We try to make "Washington Week" like a dinner table conversation.

Was the combination of being a senior correspondent on the "NewsHour" and host of "Washington Week" what got you to come over from NBC?

Absolutely. I would not have left NBC for just the "Washington Week" job, and I would have hesitated if it were only to be at the "NewsHour." But together, it's such a great combination of skills that I couldn't resist. Every new job I've taken (and Lord knows I can't hold a job) in my career has been one that allows me to expand and learn new things.

Is the difference at "NewsHour" the time allowed for each segment?

That's a big part of it. The idea of an in-depth piece at NBC was two-and-a-half minutes. An idea of a short piece here is eight minutes. So you have a lot more time to dig a lot deeper. I also got to learn skills like anchoring. I was working at a place where they always gave you reasons why you couldn't do something, as opposed to here, where you are the one saying, "I don't think I can," and they are assuming you can. It's better to work in a place that assumes you can do something as opposed to one where it's assumed you can't. That to me personally was the appeal.

Has your career been one of facing down those who said you couldn't do well? Do race and gender play a role?

It's not really as simple as that. Every job I left wasn't an escape. It was for a better job. I was a national correspondent for the Washington Post. That was not limiting. But the New York Times offered me a chance to do more with that. And I was covering the White House for the Times, which wasn't limiting. But NBC was going to offer me the chance to learn a whole new set of skills in television, and once again I was a political correspondent for NBC, which was far from limiting, and got a great chance to host my own program. As far as the race and gender question, you benefit and you lose when you define yourself in that way.

How so?

How other people define you is their problem. I am very conscious that there are very few people who look like me in this business. It is a subject that has plagued me and bugged me throughout my career: We in journalism purport to tell the story of the world but can't quite get to the point in print or in broadcast where we are representative in the worldviews and veils of experience that we bring to the task.

I'm very aware that I am a "lonely only" doing this, as far as black women hosting public affairs programming. But I am not at all convinced that it has to be that way. I love and embrace being a role model. If, when I was a little girl, I had seen someone like me on the television, I would have been in love with the idea that I existed. I am happy to give advice and ideas to students, and to spot a young black kid in the newsroom and say, "You might want to do this or that." That's a huge part of my role and why I'm here.

As an experienced journalist, what do you tell a young reporter about the new media?

I don't know. We keep getting confused about the Web. I'm not sure old media has gotten into the habit of bringing people along from the Web or vice versa. The point is to get an opportunity to write. You want to be able to ask any question you want to anybody and get an answer. That's the fun part of what I do.

How do you unwind?

I love the Washington Mystics [a WNBA team]! I'm a season-ticket holder. I'd like to see them start winning.

Robert Margolis

Robert Margolis is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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