Journalists are getting a lot of brickbats for their coverage of the 2016 presidential race. Too many journalists failed as the watchdogs and truth-seekers the public expects and depends upon them to be. That’s all the more reason Gwen Ifill’s death this week was difficult to absorb. The PBS NewsHour co-anchor, much admired and celebrated for work in newspapers and television, epitomized the integrity and skill all journalists need to perform their jobs responsibly and effectively.
Ifill’s integrity and skill were evident in an interview I did with her for the Observer 11 years ago. She was visiting Charlotte for a talk at the Charlotte Museum of History. Here are excerpts that underscore what journalism and the public have lost. We’ll miss you, Gwen Ifill:
Q. You’ve been covering Washington politics for a long time. What’s that like?
I find it fascinating because I’m one of those people who think the government is important to people’s lives. I think it really matters and has an impact. If the role of a Washington-based journalist is to explain to people why that is, that will have you looking at unfolding events in a slightly different way. That’s why what happens in Washington is not beside the point. And your responsibility as a journalist is to explain to people why that is. That’s what I’ve been doing every day.
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Q. Does that change with administrations?
Sure it changes. You’re dealing with different personalities. You’re dealing with different goals and world views. You’re learning a whole new set of ways of listening to people. But it doesn’t change the basic skills… And that doesn’t change no matter whether your sources are Republican, Democrat or independent. You still have to get to the bottom of what they think, how they defend their arguments. As open-minded as you can stay as you approach those questions and answers, the better story you’re going to be able to tell. You just have to be open to learning and experiencing the world through a slightly different set of lenses.
Q. There’s a lot of talk about the Bush administration (George W. Bush was president in 2005) being more closed to the media. Is that so different?
Every administration has tried to manipulate the news and control what comes out of Washington and what gets into newscasts. They’ve been more successful. Another way of looking at it is the technology has changed so much… So it’s not that it’s worse or better, but in many ways we have to keep our eyes open to all the different ways that information is dispersed. We need to shift the way we look at information to fairly represent, you notice I didn’t say objectively, but fairly represent what it is officials are trying to get out.
Q. Why not objectively?
Because everybody brings a whole set of experiences to what they do. The question is whether you’re going to be open-minded enough so that you are fair, and are going to listen to every alternate point of view, and present as many as possible.
Q. Have you ever regretted becoming a journalist, given how journalists are sometimes perceived because of the failures and lapses of some?
I’ve never regretted it for a minute, mainly because so many journalists are doing it right. There are hundreds and hundreds of really smart young journalists who are trying to do it right, and do it that way every single day.
Fannie Flono is a former Observer associate editor.