Gwen Ifill

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Gwen Ifill is the managing editor and moderator of the PBS show “Washington Week.” She is also a senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, an author and has hosted vice presidential debates. Ifill will be at Arizona State University to talk about diversity in the media, and will talk about her career and journalism on “Arizona Horizon.”

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. The framework for comprehensive immigration reform could be introduced as early as next week according to lawmakers, who say a recent agreement between labor and big business is helping to push the process. The so-called Gang of Eight U.S. senators including John McCain and Jeff Flake is looking to introduce reforms that would, among other things, provide citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. And the proposed target date does not mean that a deal is finalized.

Ted Simons: She's a senior correspondent on the PBS "NewsHour" and managing editor and moderator of "Washington Week." She is Gwen Ifill and her career also includes moderating vice-presidential debates and writing a book about race in the age of Obama. She is in town to accept a diversity award from The Walter Cronkite School of Mass Communication and Journalism.We welcome Gwen Ifill to "Arizona Horizon." Good to see you, thanks for being here.

Gwen Ifill: Glad to be here.

Back to this immigration thing I was talking about. How big a story is that in Washington?

Gwen Ifill: It's a huge story. First of all, we're surprised to see people working together. We have bipartisan negotiations going on, which never happens anymore. Now we see that Republicans have been moved to get involved in this discussion. Democrats are moved to take advantage of this opportunity and we have these senators sitting down and coming up with a plan. We're not sure what the plan's going to be. The Democrats on the Gang of Eight -- that's what we call them now, a gang -- they say they have worked out everything exempt the details. Marco Rubio, the center for Florida made clear he's not so certain they are there yet. We're still in the negotiating phase.

Ted Simons: Are you a little surprised that this issue has gained this much traction? The issue of gay marriage has seemed to have gained considerable traction. Is that surprising a little bit?

Gwen Ifill: What's interesting to me, what has changed with the gay marriage issue has been driven by Americans, Americans in poll after poll after poll have shown themselves to be far more open, tolerant, or unconcerned about the idea of same-sex marriage, and the politicians are following the Americans' lead. We saw the reaction in the election where a -- first of all, a lot of Hispanic voters see it as the gateway issue, they may not themselves not be undocumented, but they may know someone who is undocumented. Republicans took stock of their loss in November and said, what can we do to speak to this rapidly growing contingent, which we can't afford to just give to the Democrats. For different reasons there is movement on these domestic issues.

Ted Simons: For years it felt like no one was paying attention. There was a lot of yelling and screaming within our borders but look back east-- they are interested now.

Gwen Ifill: In Washington the conversation was mostly about border security. Now we're going beyond border security, that's a given everyone agrees on. And then going beyond that to talk about what happens to the individuals who are already here.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about you and why you are here. You're speaking regarding diversity in journalism. What does that mean?

Gwen Ifill: It means that we can't tell the stories about our country and our world unless we have people telling those stories who have a better understanding of it. To me, it's one thing to have people in the newsroom who look different. But I want people in the newsroom who think differently, exposed to different ways of life. Then we're not surprised by stories shifting underneath us. If you have a newsroom with a lot of Hispanic reporters in it, they may be more attentive to a shift on the immigration story. If you have a newsroom with more gays in it, they may be more attentive to shifts in gay marriage. I find that we have to tell stories better and more fully in our newsroom and we haven't always been able to do that.

Ted Simons: Some critics will say, a fact is a fact is a fact, no matter who is presenting it. How do you respond to that?

Gwen Ifill: The facts don't get presented, that's the problem. There are lots of facts about lots of communities, that if you don't have somebody aware of it -- reporters ask questions for a living, but they have to know where to go to ask the questions. To the extent there is bias in news coverage, it's in the stories that we don't tell. We don't tell because we don't know anyone who's attuned to see the stories sitting there.

Ted Simons: When you were a young reporter, were you sent on stories where your superiors thought, a young black woman, let's send this reporter to do specific stories. Was that the way this started with you?

Gwen Ifill: I don't remember ever having that happen to me. Maybe because I came along when there were a lot of groundbreakers before me who were recruited into newsrooms because there was a need for us. In the same way that Republicans are looking at immigration reform because they got their butts beat at the polls, then after the riots on the East Coast in 1960s a lot of newsrooms said maybe we should have people from these communities represented in our newsroom. By the time I came along I was able to cover politics, school board, all kinds of different issues, and it didn't largely have to do with race. I was able to spot things we did which might be insensitive, or I might see stories from my church or other places that folk in the newsroom might not see.

Ted Simons: What kind of reaction did you get when you brought these things up?

Gwen Ifill: Usually it was good reaction. It wasn't that people didn't want to cover these things, they just didn't know about them. Most journalist I know do what to tell the full story.

Ted Simons: You started -- I want to get back to how you started again. I ask this question all the time. But was there ever a point in your young life when you -- something clicked, you did an interview, watched something on TV, read something in a newspaper or a magazine and said, I think I want to do this?

Gwen Ifill: Journalism?

Ted Simons: Yes.

Gwen Ifill: I wanted to be a journalist since I was very young. We watched political conventions for fun in our household, the world was unfolding, presidents were assassinated and dying in office. We saw things happening. History was unfolding. We were taught that was important. What I wanted to do was write about it. I liked writing, I needed a deadline. Journalism seemed reasonable. I liked having a by-line, being able to attach myself to the story. I was a curious, annoying little girl and I wanted to ask a lot of questions. Journalism seemed like the best place to be.

Ted Simons: The best place to be for someone who's curious.

Gwen Ifill: My family was always very proud of the choices I made, I was very, very happy about that. They were able to see me do well in my career in newspapers and television.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about television. You started in print. Was television even an option out there for you, even a consideration?

Gwen Ifill: It was an option I had rejected actually. I had done a internship in college, but I didn't like television, I thought it was too shallow and I was right. So for most of my career I spent it working in newspapers. I liked that I had an ability to tell the story in-depth, PBS is so perfect for me, I get to do the television where people see the impact and it reaches more homes. Also I get to go a little deeper, that's my first love.

Ted Simons: Do you think in general television news, mainstream broadcasting, is it still too shallow?

Gwen Ifill: Yeah, it is. The difference now is that there were so few places to go to get information. Now there are so many places to go, if you want to go a little deeper you can. If you want to do documentaries, you can. Just now on a dozen or two dozen different television stations rather than three.

Ted Simons: Is that healthy to have so many options? It's almost like, if you're out to buy shoes and there's 47,000 shoes staring at you, you don't know what to do. Do news consumers really know where --

Gwen Ifill: A man who doesn't shop for shoes. I'm saying I know what kind of shoes I'm looking for, I know what feels comfortable. I know what color I'm searching for and what outfit I want it to match. I search for something that fits those needs. The same thing for people who look at the grand array of news and information options and they get what they need.

Ted Simons: Is that healthy?

Gwen Ifill: Yes.

Ted Simons: As opposed to the Walter Cronkites of the world saying, here it is?

Gwen Ifill: I don't think we'll go back to the day where one guy in a studio tells you this is all you need to know. It's very much more on the news consumer to get their information.

Ted Simons: What happens when the news consumer says, here's what I want to know. I want to know what everyone who thinks like me wants to know.

Gwen Ifill: Well, that's a risk, and it's a problem I call silo journalism. People just turn on the TV station in the morning--they know they will tell them what they want to believe and end the day the same way. I think that's a problem. We need to find a way to break down that wall.

Ted Simons: There is a way to do that, do you think?

Gwen Ifill: I don't know, but I think we have to keep trying.

Ted Simons: You also have made headlines as a moderator. You moderate of course "Washington Week." Is it a challenge -- we do some of it here so I know a little bit, but not to your level. Is it a challenge to be a moderator when someone is saying something and you just know that's not accurate, and you want to -- how do you do that? How do you work that?

Gwen Ifill: Politely. You press the question, sometimes repeat the question. At some point, because I have a lot of people in Washington who come on our program who understand about the limitations of time. If they say the same thing over and over again, they will suck up the time and you'll never get an answer. You've had that happen.

Ted Simons: Oh, sure, oh, sure.

Gwen Ifill: The key is to trust the audience. Make it clear maybe with a glance at the camera and then move on. There are other things you want to accomplish. As you go along you're making a lot of snap decisions about how much time you want to spend on one topic. Especially if you know they are not prepared to answer the question.

Ted Simons: And it's nice with the PBS audience, you ask the question, they completely dodge it, and the audience is saying, they completely dodged that and you know the audience is saying they completely doged it.

Ted Simons: The overall state of journalism, we hear this a lot Mainstream media, PBS, fill in the blank, liberal bias-- How do you response to that?

Gwen Ifill: I respond by saying generally when someone accuses youof liberal bias it's because they are conservative and someone who accuses you of conservative bias is liberal. The vast majority of people live in a state of gray. They don't label themselves, they don't see the world that way. They want the information and they want to make up their own minds. My goal is to tell you what you need to know and let you make up your own mind. If you think I'm liberal, that's usually inside your head, not based on anything you can prove that I said or did.

Ted Simons: At the bottom of it all, if a reporter is liberal or conservative, that doesn't necessarily mean that a straight reporter is going to show it. As a matter of fact, a professional would not show that bias.

Gwen Ifill: Absolutely not. I also think you have to be careful no matter, even if you are an opinion journalist, even if it's your job to have a point of view, it doesn't mean you shouldn't listen. The reason why Shield and Brooks is one of our most popular features, they know these guys disagree with each and they do it in a civil fashion. They listen to each other and they seem to like each other. That resonates with people at home.

Ted Simons: I used to mention the McLachlan Group, when it first started there was a lot of yelling and shouting. There seemed to be a twinkle in their eyes and you miss that on the cable news show. Now it's pure vitriole.

Gwen Ifill: In your home do you really want that much anger. We come into your home, we're guests in your home. Our job is to do what we would do if you were sitting there, which is behave like adults.

Ted Simons: Interesting concept. We started with the concept of diversity, and I would like to tie it up with that. With President Obama, it's being called the Age of Obama, what have you seen change, as far as journalism? As far as society?

Gwen Ifill: I haven't seen that much change. I think on some level his presence there, the presence of a biracial black president has made Americans have conversations with themselves about what's normal, what's not. Look, we're done, we're over it, we don't have to deal with the scar of race in our society anymore-- I don't think we've gotten that far. But I don't think it's changed our politics that much, his race or the fact of it. I think he's leaned over backward to be as mainstream and as normal a family for instance as possible. Today on the Easter egg roll, apparently he missed two of 22 shots at the basketball court. And then he handed the ball to a little boy who sank it, of course. They have -- if they have done anything I think for a lot of black families, they have let the world see the way a lot of black families are, which is perfectly, boringly normal.

Ted Simons: Interesting. But is that something that's gone over a hump and you're off into the horizon? Or is it something that could revert back to the way it was before at a moment's notice?

Gwen Ifill: I think as a nation we generally move forward. We may fight the same old battles, but not from the same location we started them. From now that we've had a black president, and we know that we are capable as a nation of doing something like that, I think that it can happen again. But not necessarily, that doesn't mean that's what happens forever. I think it's good for us to have conversations. They seem to be marginally healthier than they have been in the past.

Ted Simons: It was certainly good having you on for this conversation. When you speak to students at ASU at the Cronkite School of Journalism, do you feel optimistic about the future?

Gwen Ifill: I feel incredibly optimistic. They are very bright and focused and so much smarter than I was.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here.

Gwen Ifill: Thank you, Ted.

Gwen Ifill:PBS NewsHour;

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