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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 6:31 PM EDT

MJ: It seems like sometimes people equate neutrality with boring. How can the straight-arrow media, without the fancy interactive maps and the crawl, hold people's attention with just the facts?

GI: I also do Washington Week on Friday nights, and we don't have maps, well not very good ones anyway. [Laughs.] We don't have holograms, but I get constant feedback from viewers, and it's appointment television: They sit down on Friday night and have someone explain to them why something happened. They've had a week, if they choose, of having someone holler at them what did happen. Then we sit there on Friday night and say, Okay, this is what drove this point, this is actually what's in that bill that everyone is yelling at you about, no one tells you what's in it, here's how this will change your life, and here's the politics behind it. And it goes very quickly and people are uniformly, at least to my face, grateful to have a place to sort it through. There is so much information; there are so many ways to get little pieces of information now that it runs the risk of misinformation on a broad scale. So to have someplace which is almost kind of a safe place to go where someone's gonna synthesize it for you, whether it's Washington Week or Newshour, is great. Now if that's not the way you want to get your information, then there are other things to do, but there ought to at least exist this one safe place where you can go.

MJ: What role do you see public television holding with new, young, online YouTubers? I mean, I don't see Jim Lehrer or Ray Suarez tweeting. Okay, maybe Suarez.

GI: [Laughs.] I don’t think you'll see Jim Lehrer tweeting, but you do see our Online NewsHour as—I think I would argue could be the most robust part of our operation now. Like every other news organization, survival depends on finding a way to embrace new ways of reaching viewers, and in our case, in the case of public television, which depends so heavily on contributions from viewers like you, but also from underwriters and other people who are willing to support public broadcasting. We also have to be of the moment, we have to catch up, we have to prove that we are relevant. In our Online NewsHour section we have so much original programming that doesn't air necessarily on the air, and as we go on every day we try to figure out how can we integrate this, how can we drive viewers to the Web, and vice versa. This is something which I would say, just in the last two or three years, has become a major focus of what is happening in The NewsHour. A part of our formula for staying relevant. Now you may not see me tweeting soon, but I will do my Web chats!

MJ: Since everyone has an opinion and we as viewers know this, maybe we get to a place where we want to know the opinions of the personalities we come to trust, namely media personalities like you. How do you deal with that constant demand, for your innermost thoughts?

GI: People don't demand that that much of me. People ask and I tell them pretty honestly I think that they shouldn't really care what I think. People assume what I think. That's what happened before the vice presidential debate. A lot of people assumed they knew what I would say or what I was doing. Even though none of them asked, no one asked me what I was doing or saying, they just assumed it, based on my physical characteristics, I can only assume. But as far as actually asking me what I think, I don't get a lot of that. And when I do get someone asking I usually just challenge them why they need to know. Because it's not my job; it's not my desire. I have always resisted the desire to express my opinion to the point now that I probably have the hardest time voting of anyone I know, because I have spent so much time absorbing all points of an issue, that I have a hard time actually pulling the ballot once I get in there. Which, you probably shouldn't rely on me because I am always going to tell you, I am always going to be counterintuitive. I was talking to an audience last night where person after person basically suggested that Barack Obama walks on water and if they could only touch the hem of his garment he would solve all their problems, and I had to say, Calm down people. He's a man, and he's new, and it's been three weeks. Prepare to be disappointed—that's almost inevitable. But that doesn't mean that you just write the guy off. Or that doesn't mean that you endow him with superpowers. We all have to find some level place to be and analyze what's going on in a discussion way, and that's where I come in. I'm not in love. I'm not out of love. I'm just trying to find some version of the truth in the middle of it all.

MJ: Washington Week reaches 97 percent of US television households. How do you prepare yourself each week to hang out in 97 percent of living rooms?

GI: I find if I get the smartest reporters I know around one table with the understanding that we want to shed light rather than emit heat, the show practically unfolds on its own. All of our panelists are deeply engaged in the topics at hand, so that leaves me free to convene a little dinner party, sans alcohol, and invite the rest of America to listen in.

MJ: You've described Washington Week as your sandbox. Would you say the viewpoints on the show are representative, or how would you describe the varying perspectives, the spectrum?

GI: I try to, um, I am very careful. Well, I think I'm careful. My goal is to try to stay away as much from opinion journalism as possible. And if one of our panelists comes on and says, Well, this is what I think, they generally don't get invited back. I see a pretty bright line between analysis and opinion. And so, to that end, my goal on Friday nights is to try to assemble the smartest reporters who are available to me that week who have been involved in covering the news. Who can tell me something that happened on the elevator after the doors closed, who can tell me what the backstory was on any set of things. Now, because it's Washington, and because I insist on reporters rather than pundits, that narrows pretty dramatically, I think, the kinds of people I can bring on the program. I have a constant pet peeve about diversity. But the truth of the matter is, in Washington, covering big beats, the big newspapers and networks haven't spent a whole lot of time putting people on those beats from diverse points of view. The people who cover Washington are generally the people from the biggest newspapers, which, in fact, are shrinking before our eyes, so it's harder to get even geographic diversity around the table. But that's something I'm constantly, constantly pushing against and stressing because I feel, based on my own experience, that where you come from can affect the way you see a set of facts. Not necessarily change your opinion, but change the thing you see, that you literally can witness with your eye. And that's why, and the people you talk to, and the people you're comfortable with, these people will tell you, it just becomes richer if it comes from someplace other than all these Harvard accents. That's what I strive for, not always successfully, because Washington is by definition, by the time you get to the top of your profession, a pretty limited place in that respect.

MJ: How much do you think groupthink and conventional wisdom guide the DC press corps?

GI: Usually, it's huge, there's no question. But it's mostly groupthink. It's interesting to see who, over time, who decides what the groupthink is, because it's not new—it's not a new thing. I think groupthink was probably more dangerous in 1962 when the press fell in love with John Kennedy than it is now. Because there was a very tight group of wire reporters and big newspapermen who determined what the groupthink was. Other people either didn't have the resources or access to change it. Now, you still have a smallish group of people, some of them bloggers, some of them aggregators, but there are so many more of them and there are so many outsiders elbowing their way into the party. You know, a gasp of outrage when the president let Sam Stein from the Huffington Post ask a question at his first news conference. It was like someone else had been invited to the party. Now, you could go back and forth about whether that's good or not, because I still believe there are standards of journalism that have to be met, but I think we are actually in a better position right now to explode groupthink than we have ever been in Washington journalism. So I'm not really troubled by it.

MJ: You're no stranger to parody and satire. Queen Latifah has played you—

GI: Twice!

MJ: Yeah, and you reference SNL in your book and have been a part of the political laugh shows yourself. What role does humor play in making the news?

GI: I think it's a big part of it. People are going to get their information from all kinds of resources, so how do you tap into that, how do you stay aware of it? I appeared on both Letterman and The Daily Show and I found both David Letterman and Jon Stewart to be really smart guys. Really engaged in the world around them and in the news. So they're comedians, that's what they do for a living, but they're also citizens paying attention. So if that's what they are, I want to tap into that. Now, there are a lot of people out there who aren't that; they're just comedians, everything is just for the joke, and that's fine, but it's not the same thing as what I do and it's not even related to what I do, it's just for the laugh. So I really think it's important. I think whatever gets you inside someone's head, whatever makes you accessible. People are always surprised when they see me speak live that I have a sense of humor. And I say, Well, you know, there's not much opportunity to laugh when you're reporting the dread news of the day. So yeah, it's not surprising that you wouldn't see that side of me on television, but in real life I find the world to be quite a funny place.

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