Washington Week: Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill
Journalist, Moderator, "Washington Week"
Thursday, November 17, 2005; 12:00 PM

Each week, the country's top reporters join moderator Gwen Ifill for an in-depth discussion of the week's top news from Washington and around the world. The longest-running news and public affairs program on PBS, "Washington Week" features journalists -- not pundits -- lending insight and perspective to the week's important news stories. Now, Ifill brings "Washington Week" online.

Ifill was online Thursday, Nov. 17, at Noon ET to take questions and comments.

Ifill is moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Ifill spent several years as a "Washington Week" panelist before taking over the moderator's chair in October 1999. Before coming to PBS, she spent five years at NBC News as chief congressional and political correspondent. Her reports appeared on "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," "Today," "Meet the Press" and MSNBC. Ifill joined NBC News from The New York Times where she covered the White House and politics. She also covered national and local affairs for The Washington Post, Baltimore Evening Sun, and Boston Herald American.

" Washington Week ," airs on WETA/Channel 26, Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ( check local listings ).


Macon, Ga.: Thanks for the opportunity to comment -- not so much a question, but don't you think it strange that Bob Woodward, again, find himself in a cover up mess? I find it appaulding that he (Woodward), if not surprising, that he again is in the center of this. Why didn't he come forward and reveal what he knows? I had respect and admiration for him, but with this new revelation that he withheld information, I now regard him in low esteem. Mr. Woodward, I believe is only concerned about himself and getting the story. I think is very lucky that the Post is willing to retain him -- perhaps he should be fired!

Gwen Ifill: Whew. Hi everybody. I can see what kind of chat this is going to be!

There are many things that are odd about what we know (and don't know) about what, when and why Bob Woodward did and did not do here. I wish I could do more than speculate about what's really happening here. But I guess "strange" will have to do.


San Francisco, Calif.;: Ms Ifill,

According to many Middle East experts, Iran is the chief beneficiary of the U.S. invasion/occupation of Iraq.

Why is this not being covered by you and others in the American press?

Thank you.

Gwen Ifill: How would you say Iran is the "chief beneficiary?" I guess definitions, as always, are the most important thing. I bet, for instance, you could find "Middle East experts" who would say a lot of things.


Carlisle, Pa.: With all of the discussion of misleading intelligence about Iraq's WMD nobody seems to be mentioning that the U.S. inspectors had found no indicatons of programs for WMD and were nearing a final report about it when Bush brushed aside what they were doing and rushed into war. It would be interesting to see a discussion of why the discussion at the time and now ignores this issue.

Gwen Ifill: It would be an interesting time for folks to go back and be reminded exactly what was said at the time the decision was made to go to war. I think it's safe to say both sides are being selective in what they choose to argue about what we knew at the time. But you are correct that the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN inspection team were not as adamant about the weapons Saddam supposedly possessed as the US government was.


Tucson, Ariz.: I would like to know how come the standard reason for Plame's CIA cover disclosure was due to the administration wanting to 'discredit' her husband, Wilson. How is that going to discredit him? It seemed more like spitful retaliation.

Gwen Ifill: The thinking goes that Wilson was not to be believed because he was only there because his wife got him the job. I'm not sure that makes any sense, but there it is.


Medford, Mass.: So where's Jim? Are you staging a coup?

Gwen Ifill: Lord no! Don't you go starting rumors!


Baltimore, Md.: Greetings Gwen,

I am a regular viewer (and fan) of Washington Week primarily because I appreciate the civil discourse and gentle wit that is present every week among the regulars.

Several times, in preparation for these monthly chats, you promo them by signing off with such comments as, "join me in my monthly online chat next week... be kind." Or, "...where I answer your questions... kind of."

So, my question is: why do you do these chats? You really do not seem to enjoy them. It is OK to give your opinion now and again, we won't think less of you.

By the way, having Dana Priest on the show is always a good idea; and, her weekly Thursday chats here are full of insight and good humor.

Gwen Ifill: Are you suggesting I have no insight or good humor? Surely you notice my smile when I promote these web chats!

Actually, I do enjoy them. And although I will still keep most of my opinions to myself, I will try to think of a couple of jokes to entertain you.


Bethesda, Md.: So now we know why the GOP senator from Alaska fought so hard to allow the oil executives testify without an oath last week. So they could lie to us about never having met with with the VP in early 2001. That was when the feverish push to invade Iraq was just ramping up. Do you buy the line that it was just "principle" that caused Cheney to fight all the way to the USSC to keep those minutes secret?

Gwen Ifill: I suppose I could buy it...but it does seem that this story is still unfolding.


Chesapeake City, Md.: What do you think the president would have to do in order to garner enough support in his party to get budget cuts in social programs passed by Congress when so many legislators are apparently distancing themselves from the president? How do you think this might affect further tax cuts of higher income tax brackets?

Gwen Ifill: The President is certainly in a box on those tax cuts (this week, at least). The plan in the House had been to pass spending cuts first, and then move on to the tax cut extensions. But moderates in both chambers are off that ship, and we expect our lawmakers to be working some late nights to get this budget passed.

By the time we go on the air tomorrow night, I'm thinking we'll know a lot more.


Germantown, Md.: Gwen,

I am very concerned about administration flacks finding their way onto the NewsHour broadcast. Ray's interview with Dan Bartlet was such a spinfest that I can't help but wonder if Tomlinson's spirit remains at PBS.

How do you go about booking guests who are just going to give the administration talking points without any second guessing?

Gwen Ifill: We invite a wide array of guests onto the NewsHour, including administration officials and their critics. That's true of most news programs.

In general, we see the issue of "balance" as something that cannot be gauged by a single night's programming, but by the way we tell the story from day to day to day.

And, for the record, no one at PBS or the CPB tells us how to program our show.


Raleigh, N.C.: With the Bob Woodward revelation, about how many different White House officials were discussing Valerie Plame "casually"? At what number does the notion of it being casual become hard to believe?

Gwen Ifill: I don't think we know how many -- which is, of course, the nub of the issue. We know about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. We know Libby discussed it with his boss VP Cheney. And we know a classified memo detailing the Plame-Wilson relationship made its way around Air Force II and the State Department. So it remains a mystery how many people were part of this.

Keep in mind one thing the Woodward revelation has reminded us: Patrick Fitzgerald's not done yet.


Anonymous: Is The Post going to suspend its own Judith Miller, namely Bob Woodward who personally benefited by getting inside access to White House officials for his books while appearing on television to throw water on criticism of the war strategy? I think its very disturbing that we now find out that Woodward received the Plame information early on and at the same time had the gall to comment on Larry Kind and elsewhere about how the special prosecutor should not indict unless the evidence is strong in the "outing" case. Now he refuses to disclose the name of his source. Its an outrage that someone who once was a good reporter has been corrupted so badly.

Gwen Ifill: Obviously I cannot predict what the Post is going to do. So far, however, editor Len Downie seems to be defending him pretty staunchly.

Of course, Judy Miller's editors...oh, never mind.


Athens, Ohio: Not a question, just a compliment.

You look quite lovely in your matching maroon turtleneck and suit. Fantastic!

Gwen Ifill: Wow. Lemme rush home and put that outfit back on!


Alexandria, Va.: After issuing two forceful White House press releases questioning the accuracy of stories in both the New York Times and The Post, why is it that neither paper has responded? Not even a "We stand by our story" comment?

Gwen Ifill: Write back, Alexandria. I'm not sure what White House press releases, or what news stories, you're referring to.


Lynnwood, Wash.: Does it make sense to badger Syria under current circumstances? Does the Syrian government really have control over the terrorists crossing their border into Iraq? Wouldn't we get more help from the Syrian government as their friends than as their enemies? What is the Bush administration thinking?

Gwen Ifill: I find it highly unlikely that there is anyone in this Administration tasked to make friends with Syria.


Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.: Do you ever fax questions ahead of time to the subject of an interview, or is this some special technique reserved for the Woodward school of journalism?

Gwen Ifill: I've never done that, no.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What responsibility does an assistant managing editor have to maintain the reputation and credibility of his paper? Is inconceivable that Woodward did not know that The Post was negotiating "special arrangements" for Pincus to testify, yet Woodward withheld information from Downie and the Post's lawyers? As a result, when Woodward finally testified, he raised serious questions about the credibility and integrity of Pincus, The Post, and The Post's lawyers (whom, one assumes, assured Fitzgerald that the "special arrangements" made for Pincus would not result in testimony relevant to the case being withheld.)

Didn't Woodward have a responsibility to The Post to come forward with his story as soon as possible?

Gwen Ifill: I believe he did, and he is now apologizing for what he says was a mistake.


Seward, Neb.: Has the atmosphere at PBS changes at all with Tomlinson's disgrace and departure? Any indication that PBS will worry more about truth and less about balance?

Gwen Ifill: I have to confess, the Tomlinson kerfluffle affected me not at all. I might have felt differently if he had been investigating ME, I guess. But it's important to remember that "PBS" is not a network, but a collection of local stations and program producers. There is not the type of top-down management you find at commercial networks, so it's harder than it might seem to impose ideological points of view across the board.


Burke, Va.: So the President's SS plan is dead and the Dem's SS plan is ...? Is there a democratic plan, or is the end result we just keep riding this train to bankruptcy? Can the Democrats regain either house in 2006 without a specific plan similar to the Contract with America?

Gwen Ifill: Good point. Right now, there seems to be nothing on the table about Social Security.


Bethesda, Md.: Ms. Ifill, I suspect you won't respond to this, but how sad is it that our media has essentially censored the story that our military used chemical weapons in Fallujah? Is more public ignorance the solution to the problems we find ourselves in? Is it not enough that nearly half the US still thinks Iraq attacked us on 9/11? No wonder Americans are turning to international news sources to learn what's going on.

Gwen Ifill: Censored?

I guess I'm confused. I believe I reported the story of the use of white phosporus in Fallujah out of my very own mouth last night on the NewsHour. I think if it were truly being repressed, we would not have heard of it at all.


Claremont, N.H.: A few months ago I was in the audience to hear you speak at Dartmouth College. Since that time what do you see as the three most critical national or international issues that need to be addressed by the legislative and executive branches of our federal government.

Gwen Ifill: Hard to narrow that down. But certainly most Americans seem to be concerned about the economy, about the war, and about how to pay for health care. Government being the complicated engine of democracy that it is, Congress and the White House takes a few steps forward, then back, on pieces of all these issues all the time.


Herndon, Va.: I'm no fan of "W", but I am very troubled by The Post and Woodward witholding information from an ongoing criminal investigation to protect a source. Would The Post and Woodward have kept quiet all the way through a trial that could send Libby to jail? Right now the Post knows the details, the prosecutor knows the details, but the public does not know the details -- tell me again how confidentiality agreement help keep the public informed. Because of this and other abuses I will oppose any effort to pass a shield law for journalists!

Gwen Ifill: The leap you make from Woodward's reticent to your opposition to a shield law concerns me. But, given the facts we know about this case (and we don't know them all), I get how you can get there.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: So is Len Downie going to HAVE TO dismiss Bob Woodward the same way that Bill Keller removed Judith Miller from the New York Times? Call if whatever you want to it amounts to REMOVAL however you parse it.

Woodward made Downie look at best, foolish. Woodward bashed the Special Prosdecutor in the Plame Affair and then while being paid by the Washington Post hid details of his own involvement from his employer. Woodward entangled his own paper in a legal matter without the paper conscious enough of his involvement to protect itself. No Executive Editor should ever be put in that position certainly not by one of his employees.

Newspapers rely on their reputation and now the Washington Post has to go through the Punch and Judy show, doesn't it? For all the world to witness and other news organizations to gloat over.

So does Woodward go down alone or does he drag his own newspaper down with him?

You big-time media types may not want to discuss this publicly or on the Washington Post's online facility - but that's OK. That's just another dodge by the media when it comes to critical reporting on one of its own. Americans are well-used to that.

Gwen Ifill: Au contraire, dear reader. We ARE discussing this today.

But there is a difference between discussion and venting one's opinion. And out of respect for your reasoned opinion (not to mention furious typing), I post your thoughts for all to share.


Kansas City, Mo.: Regarding Tomlinson, could you talk a little just on how and where PBS shows are produced, whether at the network or local station? Such as Washington Week, News Hour, Frontline and Bill Moyers show. Which are PBS and which are local station produced and then offered/given to the network -- or how does all this work? Does where they are produced limit the inference level?

Gwen Ifill: I could spend the rest of the chat explaining this, but here is the deal in a nutshell.

The NewsHour is a product of MacNeil Lehrer productions, an independent company, and is produced in association with WETA in Washington and WNET in New York for national distribution.

Washington Week is a product of WETA, Frontline of WGBH in Boston, and NOW of WNET in New York -- all for national distribution.

It's all quite transparent if you watch the credits at the end of any PBS program. The three biggest "producing" stations in the system are in Boston, New York and Washington. But other stations in Pittsburgh and San Francisco also do their fair share.


Baltimore, Md.: Why is it that pro-war advocates can get away with calling critics of the war, "Anti-American?" Bill Kristol did it again as recently as this week:

Bush Fights Back , ( The Weekly Standard )

This rhetoric is meant to divide the country. There are legitimate questions about why we went to war, and how we are going to win the war. The propaganda that critics are not being patriotic is more irresponsible than the criticism itself.

Gwen Ifill: Dare I say I agree with you? Accusing someone who criticizes the government of being anti-patriotic seems, well, anti-patriotic.


Re: Bethesda: If the U.S.'s White Phosphorus ammo counts as chemical weapons does that mean you'll accept the tons of it we found in Sadamm's bunkers as the WMD we were searching for?

Gwen Ifill: The question is whether Mohammed el Baradei, not I, would accept it.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Gwen!

What do you think of Bob Woodward opinionating all over the place about a story he was actively reporting on (according to his own claims)?

Would you do the same thing in his position? Why or why not?

Gwen Ifill: I don't think much of it it. And, no, I like to think I would be more transparent than that.

But no one has confused me lately with Bob Woodward, who remains one of the premier news-gatherers of our time.


Johnson City, Tenn.: Dick Cheney said yesterday that the opposition made: "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.".

I know this sounds like one of Zeno's paradoxes, but isn't it turning out that Cheney's charge is even more dishonest and reprehensible, and could very well constitute perjurious, false, and misleading statements?

Gwen Ifill: Ummm...can hyperbole get you indicted?


Fairfax, Va.: Now that Democrats and even Republicans are openly questioning the President's veracity about his reasons for taking the country to war, do you think it is appropriate for commentators like yourself to explore alternative war rationales like for example the President's need to drown out his political opposition to take over the national legislature in the mid-term elections that were on the horizon in the same timeframe as the rush to war was?

Gwen Ifill: It may be appropriate for commentators to say that, but not for me. I like to stay on the reporting side of that line.


Washington, D.C.: The Post reported today about Bob Woodward's assertion that he was told in almost a "gossipy" way about Plame's operative status from his source. At the same time Mr. Woodward claims that the "gossip" was part of an off-the-record conversation. Isn't it disingenuous to on the one hand claim confidentiality for a conversation with a source, and at the same strip out something as important as Plame as mere gossip? If the conversation involved gossip, then he should reveal who and what was said to the readers. If its confidential, then Bob should have the professionalism to not deem it "gossip." He can't have it both ways, and the fact that he seems to indicates to me that Bob is spinning out of sympathy for the sources that gave him access. Either that or Bob is more naive than I thougt.

Gwen Ifill: Off the record is off the record. Just because a source is promised confidentiality does not mean everything he or she says is reportable. It is still up to the reporter making the offer of confidentiality to determine the veracity of the information being provided.

That may be one reason neither Judy nor Bob wrote stories based on what they were told. But I don't know that.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Are you surprised at the speed at which the discipline and secretiveness of this administration have been disrupted in recent weeks? I personally think it's healthy for the country to have access to the decision-making processes (or lack thereof) of any administration as a way to evaluate its judgments, but there seems to be a tremendous difficulty with such exposure among the Bush people, as the Pres./VP's recent counterattacks seem to reflect.

Gwen Ifill: Hey, I'm all for more information rather than less. But every Administration I've covered has tried -- with varying degrees of success -- to keep as much to themselves as they can. Hence, the coverups that invariably explode.


Silver Spring, Md.: I know that you don't like to do opinion, so I will ask you a question about facts: Are you are of any instance in the last five years when Dick Cheney actually told the truth?


Gwen Ifill: Now, now.


Princeton, N.J.: The reason the Democrats have not proposed anything about Social Security is because nothing needs to be done. We cannot tell at this point in time whether Social Security will have problems in the distant future. Here are some arguments for this point of view.

1. It is not simply a matter of demographics. The amount of money SS takes in depends on three factors, the number of workers (your demographics), the salaries of these workers, and the tax rate. Just think a little bit. If it just depended on demographics, how could we have a larger SS surplus now with three workers per retiree than when SS started with 16 workers per retiree.

2. Salaries will undoubtedly go up (even counting inflation) in the next 75 years. How much depends basically on the growth of the economy (GDP). That number is simply impossible to guess for the next 5 years let alone 30, 50 or 75 years. In their wild guesses, the SS administration uses a very low number (under 2 percent per year) for the next 75 years. That could be correct, but just 5 years ago, economists were seeing surpluses "as far as the eye can see." How can you be so sure they are correct now with their guess for 40 years in the future?

Gwen Ifill: I am NOT sure, and neither are any of the folks our there trying to keep this debate alive. Economic extrapolations are not cast in stone, while public policy is often expected to be.


Jessup, Md.: What is the Post going to do about Bob Woodward? I think he should be fired. Woodward has discussed the Plame inquiry during some of his frequent appearances on television talk shows, minimizing the seriousness of the investigation and questioning Fitzgerald's tactics without disclosing his own involvement. On July 17, he told CNN's "Reliable Sources": "I'm not sure there's any crime in all of this. The special prosecutor has been working 18 months. Eighteen months into Watergate we knew about the tapes. People were in jail. People had pled guilty. In other words, there was a solid evidentiary trail I don't see here." This is just egregious conduct by a journalist, particularly by one who should know better. Now, instead of being remorseful he makes it sound that the conversation with his source was just a casual disclosure while at the same time claiming he must protect the off the record conversation. Come clean Bob, it can't be both "casual" and at the same time "off the record"!

Gwen Ifill: More for your perusal.

I guess Bob's fans are not on line today!


Trin Zhuo: Thanks everybody for all your smart questions and observations.

Watch us tomorrow night. We'll talk about it all -- including the Woodward story -- with Alexis Simendinger of National Journal, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Andrea Seabrook of NPR, and Jeanne Cummings of the Wall Street Journal.

And check out our new Washington Week podcast (which includes our Webcast extra!) at

See you Friday night!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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