Update, Monday November 16, 2016: Gwen Ifill passed away Monday. She was 61.
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.”
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.
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—
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.
MJ: Sarah Palin rolled through the VP debate you moderated saying whatever she pleased. How is that allowed in a national debate format?
GI: I’m not quite certain how you can force a candidate to stick by the rules that they agreed to, other than spending your precious 90 minutes jumping up and down and screaming. I think that once the candidate and the commission have agreed to what the format is going to be, and keep in mind that one of the basics, whether you sign an agreement or not, of the debate is that you are going to answer questions. If one of the candidates shows up and decides, that’s not my job, there’s not much you can do about it. One of the unwritten rules in a presidential news conference is that he’ll answer questions. If he chooses not to, there’s not much you can do about it other than make yourself look like an idiot screaming, which to me is counterproductive.
When she said to me at the beginning of the debate—which, by the way, she did me a favor by making it clear to everyone watching that she wasn’t going to answer the questions. When she said that to me, I had an option. I could say, What? How dare you? Or I could let the viewers at home understand, just let it lie, and let them conclude, which most of them did, that she was playing by her own rules. I reached the conclusion a long time ago that chasing someone around the table for theater doesn’t really get me what I want, which is the answer to my question. What it does is it draws attention to me, which is not the point. So I don’t know if there is anything you can do, whether it’s by changing the format, changing who runs the debate, bringing in circus clowns—that’s going to make candidates answer questions when they’ve decided not to. I spent, and I know that other debate moderators do, an inordinate amount of time leading up to these debates trying to think literally down to the clause and the comma how to phrase the question in a way that will best elicit an answer. And then how do I make sure there’s an equivalent question for the other person on the stage? The distinction between a debate and an interview format is so fundamentally different, and it was one of the things that was lost on people during the Sarah Palin/Joe Biden debate. When you are interviewing someone, you have a chance to follow up, to press, to dig in. In a debate there’s 30 seconds for the other guy, too. And the goal is to get them to engage with each other, not to engage you necessarily. So, different moderators do it differently, but that was the dilemma for me.
MJ: It must have been so frustrating when she said that still. That made you want to say, as you’ve mentioned, “Really?”
GI: I was actually relieved when she said it. My first instinct was to do that, because my eyebrow kind of shot up. The other part of me thought, Ah, she came prepared to say that. She came prepared to push back, hoping, I guess, to engage me in some sort of spat. But that wasn’t my role, and in the end I was just happy she made clear her intentions early on so I didn’t have to tease it out of her.
MJ: You have called Barack Obama “murky.” What do you expect from Barack the president now that this media aloofness got him elected?
GI: It did get him elected, and I think he is intentionally murky, and I mean murky in the sense of, for us as reporters, it’s hard to peel back the layers and find out who’s the real guy. And that’s our job. I remember when I covered Bill Clinton, he was NOT murky—you poked a little bit and you almost always came across something new with him. He probably could have stood a little bit more murk in the end. But when you’re covering the president that closely, you spend a lot of time—you noticed his hair length, whether he got a haircut that day—you spend a lot of time just staring at him and trying to satisfy for yourself, Who is this person? Barack Obama resists all that. He is aware of himself in a way in a manner of probably no other candidate I have ever covered. I always think back to the beginning of the campaign, when people were talking about race and whether he was black enough. I remember thinking anybody who has read his book knew he had given more thought to racial identity than any of us alive, because most of us are who we are and we don’t think about it very carefully. He spent a lot of time thinking about himself carefully, and put it down on paper, which is the opposite of murky. But it’s almost as if he’s reached the point where he’s saying, I’ve told you enough; I’m just going to do my job. So for us that makes—we’re always looking for signs of something revealing. That’s just what we do, and my sense so far is that he’s resisting having us know anything more than we need to know except when he chooses to let us know it. Which, isn’t that the ideal for every politician?
MJ: Though not for reporters.
MJ: You talked a little about Michelle Obama, how everyone is obsessed with swatches of her potential clothes, with the fact that she shops at J-Crew. What do you think of this tabloid obsession?
GI: I think it just is what it is. Nothing about it surprises me. We get obsessed with whatever else is new and unexplored. And people did not bother to explore Michelle Obama very carefully during the campaign in terms of what kind of person she was. They latched on to the occasional statement here or there, but they didn’t really want to know that much, even though there was a fair bit written about who she was. And she’s a brand-new thing for many Americans. No one has ever seen a black woman of accomplishment with a cute husband and cute children who seems perfectly pleasant. And is gorgeous. And because this is America, we still treat women and analyze women in fairly superficial ways, and we get obsessed by the fact that she dresses well. Now, we got obsessed also by Nancy Reagan’s clothes, and we got obsessed more in a bad way probably with Hillary Clinton’s clothes. This is something in some ways that is completely predictable. But like Barack Obama, there are layers and layers to Michelle Obama we have yet to pull back in part because she came to this role after having a very accomplished career and we’ve heard almost no talk of what she’s going to do with those skills. It doesn’t mean that she’s going back to work, but it also means she’s not going to just be holding teas. She’s got to search out that middle ground for what can she be as a first lady.
MJ: You said a few weeks ago, She’ll be unlike any first lady we’ve ever had—how could she not be? Do you believe she will redefine what a first lady is and does?
GI: I think she stands the potential of redefining a lot of things, and it’s not just being a first lady. I think a lot of women look at her and say, Wow, she’s a mother who’s managing to do this. How is she doing that? Someone recently asked me, Will she change the way we look at black families? And I thought, My goodness, I think she’ll change, she has the potential for changing the way we look at families. People look at that family, this intact family, with kids who seem to love their parents, parents who seem to love each other, and they represent, and who knows how much of it is what it seems to us, but it represents what everyone wants. It’s an American ideal, not just an African American ideal. To have that, and because of their age, because of their youth, it evokes the same emotion that the Kennedys did. Which is, when people say Camelot, I think that’s what they mean, even though I don’t think it’s applicable to Barack and Michelle Obama because the Obamas did not come from the Bouvier and Kennedy families. They didn’t have a lifetime of money and privilege. They came from middle-class, food-stamp mothers—not Michelle’s mother, but Barack’s mother. So you have to assume that they’re coming thinking of one generation linked to something different. So that alone means they’d have the possibility to change something, but we don’t know what yet.
MJ: Where’s the next breakthrough?
GI: Well it’s funny, everywhere I go some people ask me whether it’s going to be a Latino breakthrough, some people ask me whether it’s going to be a female breakthrough, and then I’m reminded that five years ago we didn’t even know Barack Obama’s name. So it’s really possible it’s going to be coming from a place we haven’t even looked and seen yet, that all kinds of changes are possible. But I just don’t know, and I’m not really good at being predictive, so I guess I’m willing to be surprised.
MJ: You say about race that we have not yet come to a “common place.” What might get us there?
GI: I think it’s fair to say we are on a journey to that common place. No single election or piece of legislation or ennobling speech will get us there. But Deval Patrick likes to talk about the single-generation leap we have taken to get us where we are now. So it’s not crazy to think the next leap could take us even further.
MJ: How does the conversation around racial equality go now that we have millions of well-meaning white folk who say, I voted for Barack Obama, so everything’s okay now?
GI: I have discovered as I travel the country talking about this book that people are eager to talk about race in a way that isn’t about conflict or guilt or blames. But not even the president thinks we have transcended race. Inequalities driven by race are still far too stark for that.