Journalist Gwen Ifill Talks Politics During Ben Bradlee Lecture

On Thursday April 14 in Auerbach Auditorium journalist Gwen Ifill spoke to a standing room only audience about her experiences in journalism, the present state of politics and media, as well as their potential future.

Ifill was introduced by Todd Eberly, Interim Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, and began her lecture by speaking about her background in journalism and her current position on The PBS Newshour.

She said that at the Newshour,  “we assume that you can decide what you think if we simply give you the information to work with.”

The current state of information and media can be overwhelming, said Ifill, and many commercial news networks are not able to or do not cover stories in depth like PBS can. She explained that when she worked in commercial news an in-depth story was given a little over a minute to be covered, while on the Newshour, there are often multi-section, weeks-long investigations and reports on topics that are not covered by other stations.

She brought up conversations with college students about the state of media and the news; she reported hearing frequently that many people get their news from sources like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. To this Ifill responded, “But guess who [Jon Stewart] watches?” and pointed to herself with a grin.

She said journalism “is less out of whack than it seems” and that many major advances have been and continue to happen in journalism. She cited the rise in the number of female news anchors and other important breakthrough candidates in politics, the subject of her recent book.

This book and the criticism that she received for it, specifically that she was too biased to moderate vice presidential debates in the 2008 election, led into the lessons that Ifill has learned and would like to impress upon others.

“I’ve learned to be a woman, a leader and to be informed.”

In response to critics, she said, “You just put your head down and you do your job and the critics will fade away.”

An important start, Ifill said, is to “learn how to write and how to challenge authority appropriately” because ultimately, “the search for truth and the search for justice are not incompatible.”

At the end of her talk, Ifill fielded questions from the audience, which she said was her favorite part of giving lectures.

One audience member asked about bias in journalism and how decisions are made about what to air or report on. Ifill said that bias mainly comes in the decision about “stories we don’t cover, rather than what we do.”

Again she lauded the benefits of non-commercial broadcasting: “we have luxuries we do not have in commercial broadcasting.”

Another audience member asked her what she thought was the future of journalism. She explained that with the large amount of media that people are exposed to, the sheer volume of consumable information leads to the need to “create an environment in which we are all more literate in what is the news,” as well as the need for “news consumers who know what news is.”

Ifill responded to a question about her opinion of punditry; she said, “I don’t mind that people engage in a debate … I just don’t want it confused with what I do.”

“I always want to be the one asking more questions.”

Audience members were impressed with Ifill’s lecture. Community member Bob Aldridge said, “I liked her differentiation between media and journalism…and her sense of humor came through” which he said was a stark contrast to her demeanor on The PBS Newshour.

Assistant Vice President of External Relations Keisha Reynolds said, “Gwen was insightful, engaging and thoughtful … [her lecture] offer[ed] an inside look at true journalism and politics that we would not have otherwise been exposed to.”

Board of Trustees member Peg Duchesne said, “she’s powerful … [and] thought provoking.” Duchesne agreed with the importance of “letting the consumer of the news program make their own choices.”

Ifill, the moderator and managing editor of Washington Week, is also a senior correspondent for The PBS Newshour, a weekly program that gathers important journalists to analyze major news stories.

The lecture was presented by the Center for the Study of Democracy and was part of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Lecture in Journalism series, an endowed lecture that brings important names in journalism to speak at St. Mary’s.


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