Gwen Ifill, managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent for PBS News Hour, recently advised a packed theater of budding journalists at Emerson's Paramount Center to “Keep your ears open; the most interesting people can be the people you've never met or heard of.”
“Don't always talk to the usual suspects,” she continued. “Someone unknown can have something far more effective to say than a typical insider.”
Ifill went on to tell the story of Eugenia Pete, a woman she interviewed on January 2, 2009, at the inauguration of President Obama. Ifill was in the crowd at the National Mall with her PBS camera crew. As President Obama took the Oath of Office, she saw Pete fall to her knees, sobbing.
“I asked her, 'How do you feel right now?'” Ifill recounted, “and she smiled and she said, 'I began to cry because I have a little son, and my little son no longer has to be just a rapper or an athlete. He can be all these things…the ceiling is off, the sky is the limit.'”
Ifill said the segment on Pete ran for 55 seconds on PBS that night. “If I had been working for NBC News, that would have run for maybe eight seconds, tops. This woman's voice wouldn't have been heard…yet she managed to capture the words and the feeling of a million people on the Mall that day.” Ifill said this is why she works for public broadcasting, because she “got to tell the whole story.”
Her lecture titled “Why Journalism Matters” lasted almost an hour and she then took questions from the audience for 45 minutes. She said one of the best parts of being a journalist is that she gets to learn something new every day. “The toughest thing is sorting through all the noise so you don't lose the history,” she said.
Before coming to PBS in 1990, Ifill was chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News, White House correspondent for The New York Times, and a local and national political reporter for The Washington Post. She also reported for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Boston Herald American.
Ifill said to be a good journalist you have to be a skeptic. “The search for truth and the search for justice are not incompatible; they are actually essential.”
She has also covered six Presidential campaigns and moderated two Vice Presidential debates. While writing her bestselling book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday, 2009), Ifill became the topic of a news story herself after she agreed to moderate the Vice Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. The media began to ask if Ifill could moderate the debate fairly. Ifill told the audience that what was absurd about the whole thing was that the book was neither published nor finished at the time, and no one had seen a copy. Ifill said she was able to silence the critics by conducting a balanced debate and avoided responding to the media all together.
“So often it's not the insult, it's your response to it that shows true leadership,” she said. The book brought up other issues Ifill didn't expect as well. “I thought I was writing a book on politics,” she said. “[It] turned out I was really writing a book on race and what's happening in this country right now. That's what people wanted to talk about.”
Ifill was Emerson's 2006 graduate Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient. She was invited to speak by Emerson's Journalism Department as part of its Occasional Speaker Series and the School of Communication's Communication Week.