Judy Woodruff: Times Change in Journalism, But Curiosity Doesn’t

BY Judy Woodruff  December 8, 2009 at 7:39 PM EST

This is an exciting moment for all of us at the NewsHour, whether we’ve been working here for decades, or just a few months. The changes you see — here on the Web site and on television — are the culmination of a lot of planning and careful thought. We know the way news is delivered is shifting dramatically as technology advances and people’s lives grow busier. We’re determined to do everything we can to make our work more accessible to you, even as we remain true to the principles on which Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil founded their first TV program on PBS, more than 30 years ago. At the same time, because we’re trying new ways of reaching you, you can expect us to tinker with the formula, especially online. If we try something we don’t think works, we’ll make an adjustment. We hope to avoid big mistakes, but bear with us, we’re human! A case in point is this blog. I learned how to be a reporter in the 1970s when journalists were told to keep personal thoughts OUT of our work. This was so pounded into my head, I struggled long after it became common practice for reporters to show up on television to “analyze” the story they were working on.

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Eventually, I decided it was possible to “analyze” based on reporting, and still keep my own thoughts to myself. Now, though, the time has arrived when we’re expected to throw in some of our own thinking, to reveal more of who we are. It’s anything but natural for me – I’ve said to a few friends I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into this new type of journalism. But that’s partly an exaggeration. I do have a few things to say – not whom I voted for or what I REALLY think about this or that hot button issue – but I am more comfortable now talking and writing about (the few) things I know something about, or that I’m particularly interested in. So, I thought I’d list some of those things here, in my first blog. These are a few things I plan to follow, and maybe write about, and I welcome your thoughts on them. 1. Politics – I’ve been covering politics since 1970 and can’t get it out of my blood. I grew up influenced by President John F. Kennedy’s admonition to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Most of the people I know who work in politics and government started out with a basic desire to make life better for other Americans. But they also had personal ambition and a few other qualities that may or may not square with the well-being of the rest of us. I’m always interested in what’s driving these public figures, what’s at the core of their character, and what do they want to DO with power and influence once they have it? How responsive should political leaders be to their constituents? Should they lead opinion or follow it? How do we spot emerging political leaders?
2. The growing partisan divide: when I first came to Washington in 1977, Democrats and Republicans could disagree with each other, but still have coffee or dinner together. President Ronald Reagan had Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to the White House for cocktails. Some of President George H.W. Bush’s best friends were Democrats – he was known to visit with them at the Capitol or at the White House. Even in the 1990s, R’s and D’s worked together on difficult issues. Today, however, members of Congress are elected by increasingly polarized groups of voters, the activists in their respective parties, so that moderates are almost extinct. Many senators and House members report their highest allegiance is to their party’s caucus. Compromise is a dirty word. I’m deeply curious to know what this trend means for finding solutions to the country’s toughest problems. How can we reach consensus if members won’t even talk to each other, except to throw insults? One thing I plan to do is make note of any examples of Republicans and Democrats working together. If you know of one, please share. 3. Young people: I worked on a couple of documentaries for PBS in 2006 and 2007 on what we labeled “Generation Next” – young people born after 1980. It was clear then, and is even clearer now, they represent a generational break from the cohort that preceded them. Raised by parents who hovered over them from infancy into their post-college job searches, weaned on technology from the World Wide Web, to Facebook, iPhones and text messaging, and more diverse than any group of young people before them – one in every five has a parent born outside the United States – they are independent in their political thinking, accustomed by Google and Wikipedia for instant answers to problems, and unwilling to wait decades to make a mark on American politics and society. As a mother of three children in their 20s, I’m fascinated by the choices they’re making – in everything from politics to the way they get news – and plan to continue to keep an eye on them. 4. Disabilities: Our older son has serious physical disabilities that have opened our entire family’s eyes to the plight of those who wake up each day with the equivalent of a mountain to climb, simply to get ready for the day. As advanced as our nation is, we have a very long way to go to even the playing field, much less give them the opportunities they deserve, to be the contributing members of society they want to be. I am always on the lookout for stories and developments that relate to their lives. 5. A lot of other things: I have insatiable curiosity about history, archaeology, the environment, the universe and space, and more, especially, people. I love reading biography, wish I made more time for it, and am endlessly fascinated by the human condition, from the very youngest to the oldest. I don’t know where all of this will lead, but will be looking for information to share in the weeks and months to come. I welcome your thoughts, and will do my best to avoid one old, anonymous definition of a journalist: “A person without any ideas but with an ability to express them.” But we’ll see.