In a Historic Year, Ifill Has One Thing to Do: Her Job

"It's not my job to be on someone else's air telling them what black people think," Gwen Ifill said of other journalists asking for her take. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- Amid the craziness of covering the political conventions, Gwen Ifill has been brushing off one interview request after another.

"I'm in great demand -- everyone wants to talk to me -- but I'm not speaking for the whole race," the PBS correspondent says. "My job is to be a reporter. I cannot be the great interpreter. It's not my job to be on someone else's air telling them what black people think."

Ifill attracts her share of attention as the host of a prestigious show, "Washington Week," and as the woman tapped to moderate next month's vice presidential debate. But she stands out from the legion of journalists here for a more fundamental reason: The overwhelming majority of those writing, talking and blogging about the conventions are white.

As Barack Obama was claiming the Democratic nomination in Denver, Ifill says, a white television reporter asked her: "Aren't you just blown away by all of this?" She said she was not.

"Aren't you in the tank?" the reporter wondered.

On one level, Ifill says, she views this moment as the daughter of a black minister who marched in civil rights demonstrations and who she wishes were alive to see what Obama has achieved. But as a journalist, she says: "I still don't know if he'll be a good president. I'm still capable of looking at his pros and cons in a political sense." Besides, Ifill says, "no one's ever assumed a white reporter can't cover a white candidate."

She first met Obama at the 2004 Democratic convention, when she was a podium reporter and grabbed him for a quick word after his celebrated keynote address. She has also interviewed Obama and his family for Essence magazine.

PBS prides itself on carrying more of the proceedings than its competitors, which use much of their airtime for analysis and punditry. "We take the big speeches and a lot of little speeches," Ifill says. That has paid off in the ratings, with PBS averaging 3 million viewers last week while offering three hours of coverage each night, triple the time allotted by the broadcast networks.

On Oct. 2, Ifill will be questioning Joe Biden and Sarah Palin in their first and only face-off. She has been to this rodeo before, having moderated the 2004 debate between Vice President Cheney and John Edwards. "I was thrilled," she says. "It's fun to be able to ask the big questions on the big stage."

Ifill drew some criticism when Edwards attacked Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, and the vice president said: "I can respond, Gwen, but it's going to take more than 30 seconds."

"Well, that's all you've got," she replied.

Ifill says now that Democratic partisans were delighted because they "thought I was being snippy to Cheney." That, she says, was not her intent. Still, the consensus was that she acquitted herself well.

"Gwen is confident enough, she does her homework enough and she can listen to what's being said and move with what's being said," says her PBS colleague Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 10 presidential debates. "The pressure is extraordinary. You can ask something, say something, do something that affects the outcome of the election."

Ifill, 52, has only recently begun to think of herself as a television person, someone who must communicate with both words and pictures. She spent half her career as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, Washington Post and New York Times, making the leap to broadcasting in 1994, when she joined NBC as a congressional reporter. Five years later, Ifill moved to PBS, where she is also a correspondent for the "NewsHour."

Ifill is, as in 2004, the only black moderator of this year's debates, as well as the only woman. And she's the only one not eligible for Social Security. The three presidential debates will be moderated by Lehrer, 74; CBS's Bob Schieffer, 71; and NBC's Tom Brokaw, 68.

Another moderator probably would not have asked Cheney and Edwards about AIDS in the United States, "where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts." She believes the candidates' answers showed that neither man "had given it a moment's thought."

Ifill says she does not solicit questions, even from fellow journalists. "I get a lot of letters and e-mails from people telling me what I should ask," she says. "I read them all. Some are damn good ideas" and could wind up being used.

McCain's surprise choice leaves Ifill with a more challenging task but also guarantees that the debate in St. Louis will attract an unusual degree of attention. "There's going to be a lot written about Sarah Palin between now and then, precisely because she's so little known. . . . By the time October 2nd rolls around, I'll be a complete expert on both" Palin and Biden.

One thing Ifill is determined to avoid, in the public broadcasting tradition, is showboating at the debate. "My job is to police it for the sake of clarity and the people at home, not for my own ego. The more I am speechifying or asking lofty questions or hogging the stage, the less people are apt to learn. I'm not running for anything."

To the extent she can carve out any spare time, Ifill is working on a book called "Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." She focuses on the Democratic nominee and such up-and-coming black politicians as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

"We're very lazy when we think about race in this country," Ifill says. "We try to put it in a box. It's Jesse versus Al, or Jesse and Al versus everyone else," she says, referring to Jackson and Sharpton. "We love simplistic conflict. There's a whole group of people who have Ivy League degrees and immense accomplishments who actually benefited from the things their parents were fighting for."

So why aren't there more of them in the media ranks at the Republican convention?

"You have to look hard," Ifill says. "That's a failure of news organizations, mostly newspapers, to support and promote people of color."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company