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Gwen Ifill's Truth

The anchor of neutrality dishes on being polite, a new first for the first lady, and why it's so hard for her to vote.

| Sun Mar. 29, 2009 5:31 PM EDT

For a decade, Gwen Ifill's been a fixture on PBS's Washington Week and The NewsHour, the mild-mannered staples of capital-S serious TV news. "You may not see me tweeting soon," she confesses, but she says she's happy to see bloggers burst the Beltway bubble. Mother Jones caught up with Ifill during a schedule packed with nightly shows and a national tour for her new book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Ifill shared her thoughts on moderating Sarah Palin, being spoofed by Queen Latifah, and checking the rabid fervor of Obamamanics: "Calm down, people…Prepare to be disappointed—that's almost inevitable."

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Mother Jones: In your book you describe politics as like sandpaper, moments of friction that rub up against one another and then we reach a smooth new place. Is that politics in general or specific to racial progress?

Gwen Ifill: I think it speaks to politics in general; the degree to which it's unique or specific to racial politics is that race is itself the ultimate sandpaper in our culture. So if you take the conflicts we are used to dealing with, race over the years in America, and you combine that with the desire or aspiration to political power or taking power from other people, which is what politics is all about, you end up with a lot more friction than you would normally see with just straight-ahead politics. It's a very complicated and ever-changing evolution, race and politics in this country, because of the history of the nation as well as the nature of politics.

MJ: What's it like being in more than 3 million homes each night? Do you take particular care to reach a broad audience?

GI: I think I would do that no matter what I was doing. Even though I am in television now, I spent my career trying to speak to the broadest possible audience whether it's in print or whether it's in television. Because I would never work for a niche publication or a niche program on television and because I am a journalist and not an opinion person, my job is to try to see how many different points of view I can represent or how. It's not even a question of who you don't offend because you are always going to offend somebody. The question is how can you get people to listen to the information you have to present. You don't do that by telling them, My way or the highway; this is what I think. And you don't do it by saying, Let me just talk about this one slice. Barack Obama didn't get elected president, would never have been elected president, had he decided to run as a black candidate. In order to reach the broadest number of people you have to speak to their interests as broadly as you can.

MJ: And yet cable news at least is full of pundits, and from Rush to Rachel, there's a definite personality worship going on. Is opinion taking over, and what does that say about the role of the media?

GI: I don't think it takes over, but it's different; they do a different job than I do. I don't think if you ask Rachel Maddow if she's a journalist she would say she is. Jon Stewart doesn't say he's a journalist. Sean Hannity, I don't know what he'd say, maybe he goes back and forth. But to me it is really incumbent on us to be as clear in our definition as possible of what we mean when we say media. Because media could be anything. I think it's great to have a vibrant and lively public debate out there about points of view, as long as you're willing to listen to the other side, too. I don't see myself as a pundit and I take great pains not to be one because I always want to consider that the other guy might have a point, too. Otherwise, I couldn't do my job. So I don't think it's taking over. I just think we as consumers of information media must be very clear what it is we are consuming. Whether we are choosing to get our information by listening to people fight about it. Or whether we're choosing to get it by listening to the facts or watching the facts as they're laid out and then reaching our own conclusions. It's very different ways of info gathering, but it's not all journalism.

MJ: Have Americans come to rely more on punditry versus reportage?

GI: I hope not. I don't think so. I think that, for instance, and this isn't punditry per se, but people who laugh at Jon Stewart. I have a lot of college students say to me, That's all I watch. I guess I am supposed to be dismayed by that, but I'm not, because in order to laugh at Jon Stewart you have to understand the underpinnings of the joke. You have to know who Nancy Pelosi is; you have to have your basic information. That's true for a lot of people who watch shout shows. They are also getting their information from someplace, their basic information. Some of it is flawed, some of it is not. But at least they're taking it in, which for, you know, pre-cable I went to college at a time when people weren't even reading the paper. So I want them to be getting some sort of engagement, even though it might not be the kind of engagement I would choose to give.

MJ: Shout shows?

GI: Shout shows. People who sit in different boxes and yell at each other. I call it more heat than light.

MJ: Do people just want to be told how to interpret events as they happen?

GI: Some people just want someone to agree with the conclusions they have already reached. I don't think people are looking to make up their minds on these shows. I think they've already made up their minds. If you're watching Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, you have probably already made up your mind what you think, and you want someone to say, Doggone right—that's what I thought. [Laughs.] You know, we praise people who agree with us. But that means they formed their opinions somewhere else. There's nothing wrong with having reached your conclusions about your opinions; it's just not what I do. And I don't think everyone, I don't think most people are that hard and fast. Rather, there's that sponge-like quality. They want to know more.

MJ: The PBS ombudsman said of The NewsHour that he finds it "sometimes too polite, too balanced when issues are not really balanced." What do you think he means by "too balanced"?

GI: In the media universe we're in, where there are people screaming on one end, there is no problem at all with having a little bit of extra politeness. At the NewsHour, our goal is not necessarily to be polite but to be respectful, of various points of view. Now, what we struggle with sometimes is the notion of false equivalency, which I guess is what he's alluding to, the idea that you have engaged an evenhanded debate when there is a clear point of view that is unchallenged. I can't think of an example, but that is one of those endless inside journalism debates we all have.

But at The NewsHour we really think our role is to vet as many points of view as possible, put as much information on the table as possible, and assume, I think correctly, that the people at home are willing to take that information and make up their own minds. We're never going to say, This is the truth, or, This is the end, this is the way you should believe. We like to think that maybe, just possibly, conceivably, people are smart enough to make up their minds for themselves. I have time after time after time found that to be true. That people are engaged in, that people want to be engaged in getting the information but they don't necessarily always want to be told what the conclusion ought to be. And The NewsHour is very—we are very careful with our prize, which is an hour of commercial-free time every night, to go as deeply as we can into subjects, to lay out as many, sometimes five points of view about a single thing and try to just lay it all out there for viewers to make their own conclusions. And our viewers are really smart. They really do figure it out on their own; we don't have to lecture them.

MJ: Alternately, The NewsHour has been criticized for catering to the right and center more than to the left. What is your response?

GI: The joy of The NewsHour is that we've been criticized for catering to everybody. The right is as unhappy with us as the left; the middle is as unhappy with us as either the right or the left. And after a while you don't spend a whole lot of time pulse checking for who's been criticizing you today and do the best job you can on a certain day, and one day you will displease one side and another day you'll displease the other side, and hopefully you'll displease them all at once on occasion.

MJ: I guess that means you're doing your job then.

GI: Yeah, that's my thinking.

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