Gwen Ifill: Making News of Her Own

The journalist talks to The Root about her history-making turn as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.

(The Root) — In 1999, journalist Gwen Ifill, then a congressional and political correspondent for NBC News, told the New York Times that she was “part terrified, part excited as you always are when you try something new.” She was talking about her new post as moderator of PBS’ Washington Week in Review.

Now nearly 15 years later, Ifill is taking the reins at yet another venerable PBS newscast as co-anchor and co-managing editor of the PBS NewsHour, along with veteran journalist Judy Woodruff. Ifill and Woodruff’s appointment is more than deserved and also significant. They are the first women to occupy the anchor chairs at NewsHour, famously helmed for two decades by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil.

“I am in the business of slapping together what we call the first draft of history every day,” wrote Ifill in a recent blog post for PBS, “so it has been a little jarring to suddenly be making history myself.”

Still, Ifill took a break from prepping for Washington Week, which she will continue to anchor on Fridays, to speak with The Root about just that — making history.

The Root: Since the news broke earlier this week of your new position, you’ve been asked a lot about the historical significance of the anchor role. Are you tired of talking about it yet?

Gwen Ifill: The only thing that’s tiresome about it is that we keep having the conversation. I’m old enough to remember when Carole Simpson took over at [ABC], and that was probably 20 years ago. Growing up, I remember Melba Tolliver because she had this big Afro; as a kid I was kind of transfixed by it. It’s a little surprising to me that I should reach this great moment in my career and look around from my left and to my right and see so few people who look like me. I’d like to fix that.

TR: How do you fix it?

GI: Everybody who’s ever worked with me knows that I have this flat spot in the front of my head from banging it against the wall about newsroom diversity. And diversity isn’t just black or white; it has to be from all kinds of backgrounds. It’s one of the reasons I’m a lifelong member of NABJ because that’s where we have the conversations. It’s about covering the news better. If you’re a journalist we have to want to get a broad spectrum of influence in the stories we tell. We need people in hiring positions, in newsmaking positions and sitting in front of the camera.

TR: In a recent retweet you co-signed one news site that said, “Ifill and Woodruff are basically the journalistic equivalent of a buddy comedy.”

GI: I thought it was funny. Someone said to me afterwards, “Do you mean like Thelma and Louise?” And I said, “No, we’re not driving off the cliff.” Judy and I genuinely like each other, and, probably more importantly, we respect each other’s ideas. We have the same seriousness and purpose about what journalism is. It’s comedy for us because we don’t know where we’re going. We’re just strapping ourselves in.