Gwen Ifill, a political correspondent for NBC, is close to being named the new host of "Washington Week in Review," a move that would end the recent turmoil over the program's future.
As a further enticement, the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," also carried on PBS, has offered Ifill a job as chief national correspondent, an executive with the show confirmed.
Ifill is eager to accept both jobs, say sources familiar with the situation. And under a deal being negotiated by her agent, Robert Barnett, she would continue to play a reduced role at NBC, at least through the 2000 campaign, a network official confirmed. NBC has essentially agreed to release Ifill from her current contract, which has more than two years to run, but Barnett has not yet completed the talks with PBS. Ifill declined to comment.
"Washington Week" first offered Ifill the job last February, when the 32-year-old program was in the process of dumping Ken Bode as its moderator. But Ifill, a longtime panelist on the show, rejected the offer out of concern for Bode, who at the time believed that his contract would be renewed.
Ifill said at the time that she was "deeply disappointed" in the decision by WETA, the public television station here, to dismiss both Bode and his producer, Elizabeth Piersol. "I'm at a loss to what 'Washington Week' is going to be like anymore," she said then. "For the people who have been doing this show for years, it's been an island of sane, rational analysis in a screaming talk-show culture."
A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and the New York Times, Ifill has become one of the most visible black journalists on television since joining NBC in 1994. She has covered the White House, Capitol Hill and presidential campaigns during her career. But the prospect of the twin PBS assignments, which have become a package deal, could raise her profile even further.
The "NewsHour" assignment, which would comprise two-thirds of the job, would give Ifill the chance to conduct extended on-air interviews, report taped pieces and serve as a substitute anchor. The "Washington Week" slot would allow her to put her stamp on a Friday night program with a loyal following that was launched by Robert MacNeil in 1967.
NBC executives wanted to keep Ifill, but people close to the situation say they agreed not to block what they regard as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her. The executives are described as pleased that Ifill will maintain a link to the network, which could involve reporting or analysis on MSNBC and such programs as "Meet the Press."
Shortly before Bode was let go, he said that a WETA executive, Dalton Delan, told him that "Washington Week" needed more "edge," "attitude" and "opinion." The new approach, according to Bode, was to include more liberal and conservative debate and occasional appearances by high school or college students.
Delan said these were "preliminary discussions" that were subject to misinterpretation. But they touched off a furor because "Washington Week," while sometimes stodgy, has always prided itself on calm discussions with working journalists like Steve Roberts of the New York Daily News, Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report, David Broder of The Post, Mara Liasson of National Public Radio, Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.
WETA President Sharon Percy Rockefeller said she regretted the "mistakes" made in handling the situation and stressed that the program's character would be preserved. She brought in Paul Duke, who hosted the show for 20 years until 1994, as interim moderator.
Ifill would be the first woman and the first minority to host the program, which would underscore how much the media business has changed. When she began her career in the late 1970s at the Boston Herald, she was the only black reporter.