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Gwen Ifill on being a little girl transfixed by news

November 14, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
Gwen Ifill was interviewed by her close friend and fellow journalist Michele Norris for a January 2015 episode of the PBS series “The History Makers.” Here is an excerpt from their conversation about the challenges and opportunities of becoming a television journalist, why she loved political conventions and how she was inspired to tell stories as a little girl.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, a final word from our unforgettable Gwen Ifill.

Gwen was interviewed by her close friend and fellow journalist Michele Norris for an episode of the PBS series “The HistoryMakers” which first aired in January 2015.

We close tonight with Gwen’s own thoughts about political history, journalism, and her own role.

MICHELE NORRIS: When you went to television…

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

MICHELE NORRIS: … we heart from Pete Williams that you took to it almost immediately.

GWEN IFILL: That’s so not true.

I was — I love Pete. And it’s so sweet that he thought at. But it was really hard making — and you know this — making the transition from print to television.

You had to figure out how to write differently. You had to figure out how present differently. And you had to settle on the right shade of lipstick, which was huge.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: It turned out that everybody had something to say about you when you’re in front of a television.

But the other thing is, you get your phone calls returned. People felt they knew you. That accessibility quotient came to work. And you reached a much broader audience.

So, when I left The Times, I remember going to the then publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, at The Times and told him I was thinking of leaving to go to work for NBC.

And he said: “Why would you go to work in television? I don’t watch television.”

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s changed.

But the point was, I wanted to make sure, another important lesson for the children, which is, I didn’t burn bridges. I made sure, in case I failed in television, I could go back to print.

And I didn’t fail for the same reasons why you don’t fail. You work hard. It’s not how you get in the door. It’s what you do once you are through the door. And you make sure that you make friends and learn lessons from the people who are willing to help and ignore the haters.

MICHELE NORRIS: But, you know, and one thing that I can say, having worked in television also, is that everywhere I would go, I would find camera crews who loved them some Gwen Ifill, that you remembered that it was a team that got you on the air.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I would flirt with the camera crews, too, I should say, to this day.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHELE NORRIS: You covered a lot of conventions.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

MICHELE NORRIS: And you have said that covering the conventions is actually one of your favorite parts of covering politics.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

MICHELE NORRIS: What do you love so much about conventions?

GWEN IFILL: I’m one of the last holdouts who think conventions kind of matter.

I like a room full of people who are enthusiastic about the process. I like — I think it’s important that we hear from the future leaders of our party.

I was standing on the podium — the podium — the dais in 2004 when the keynote speaker finished speaking. And when Barack Obama walked over to me with the — you know, place was crazy, and the confetti was flying and balloons.

MICHELE NORRIS: The balloons and all that.

GWEN IFILL: And there was this electricity, you will remember, that night.

And I asked him how he thought he did. And he says, “Ah, I think I did OK.”

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Now, I found out later that Michelle had said to him in advance, “Just don’t screw up.”

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: So, you know what? He didn’t.

And it was great to be there in that moment at that time, and to talk to him about it, and to capture that sparkle that came off him as he was bursting on to the scene.

MICHELE NORRIS: Your brother has said that you, as a kid, used to watch conventions.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, don’t believe everything my brother says, but that’s right.

MICHELE NORRIS: You did? You did?

GWEN IFILL: We watched conventions kind of for recreation.

Once again, this was an extension of the fact that my parents thought that what happened in American politics and government mattered. So — and, also, keep in mind that, when we were growing up and watching conventions, we didn’t know how they were going to end. They were actually kind of dramatic.

And imagine watching a convention when Barbara Jordan gets up and speaks, and you’re a little black girl at home who sees nothing like this on television. It blows your mind. Where else was I going to see that voice, hear that voice?

And so, as a result, whenever I go through the Austin Airport, I stop and pat her a little bit. There’s a wonderful bronze sculpture of her in baggage claim at the Austin Airport. And I just greet her every time, because she was amazing.

And Shirley Chisholm — I mean, there were women, black women who were out there speaking their truth in an environment where it wasn’t generally welcomed.

MICHELE NORRIS: As I listen to you talk about this, though, I’m imagining children watching television now and seeing you.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: She’s going to make me a little verklempt here.

You know, when I was a little girl, there was a woman named Melba Tolliver who was on the news. And she had a big Afro. And I just was transfixed by this idea, not — it didn’t make me want to be in television, as much as it made me want to tell the story.

And every now and then, I’m not particularly interested in — you know, I just get caught up in whatever the day’s work is. And, invariably, somebody will come up to me and tell me the story of their little girl.

And it always stops me in my tracks, because, as long as I remember that there is someone on the other side of the piece of equipment, the camera, who is watching me with expectation, and it can shape what they do next, I just take what I do seriously every single day.

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