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A nose for news and politics - Broadcasting & Cable

A nose for news and politics

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Gwen Ifill is the first African-American and first woman to host PBS' 31-year-old public-affairs program, Washington Week in Review. She's also the first black woman to host a major political talk show.

So how'd she get there? "Perseverance and an abiding interest in what I do," Ifill says. "I've never been a coward. I always keep trying new things."

With regard to race and gender-two questions she likely wouldn't be asked if she were Tom Brokaw or Sam Donaldson-she says, "There are just as many times when it worked against me as when it worked for me. I can't look at my career and say I've been held back."

"Gwen is obviously an African-American and a female, and I think that's helped, but I don't think those things would have mattered if she weren't good," says Everett Marshburn, vice president of news and community affairs at Maryland Public Television. Marshburn worked with Ifill early in her career.

"I wouldn't have gotten here if I didn't have the credentials," Ifill says. "I spent 15 years as a print reporter and five years in TV working for the best news organizations in the country. People can look at my résumé without knowing my gender and race and say, 'Oh, of course she has that job.'"

"That job" involves keeping an elite group of Washington journalists in line every Friday evening. Ifill knows the drill because she started out as one of those reporters.

She also works as a senior political correspondent for The Newshour With Jim Lehrer, PBS' highly respected news program. Last week, for example, she covered the Republican National Convention for Newshour and then discussed the events with her fellow reporters on Washington Week.

She enjoys both roles. "It's nice because, at the end of every week, I get to say what it all means," Ifill explains. She stresses, though, that she's not an analyst: "I'm just the moderator. We're different from other talk shows. In ours, reporters come on and tell you what they have reported, but I don't encourage my reporters to say what they think."

Ifill knew she wanted to be a journalist when she entered Simmons College in 1977. She tried several internships just to be sure that newspapering was the career for her, checking out jobs at a TV station, a public relations firm and, of course, newspapers.

After college, she spent three years at the Boston Herald American before moving in 1981 to the now defunct Baltimore Evening Sun.

In Baltimore, Ifill got her first taste of hosting a political-affairs program. She became a reporter on Maryland Public Television's Sunday-morning political talk show, occasionally filling in for host Neil Friedman.

"She's a good journalist," MPT's Marshburn says. "She's got a good nose for news, and she knows how to explain stories. She's tenacious, and she's intelligent."

In 1984, Ifill moved over to the Washington Post, covering Maryland's Prince George's County. She climbed through the ranks, arriving at the national desk in time to cover the presidential campaign in 1988.

Working for the Post is "high-stakes poker," she says, but the paper schooled her in her craft. "There's nothing like working for a political paper through and through to really teach you the nuances and meaning of politics. I give it credit for what I know."

What she knows is to "ask every question you have in your head. The question you don't ask is the question you are going to regret." She also says it's important to be a reporter people trust.

By 1992, she was working for The New York Times and covering candidate Bill Clinton. That gig got her assigned to the Times' White House beat.

When she left that job in 1994, she says, all three major broadcast networks were banging on her door. She covered Congress for NBC until last year, when PBS lured her away. "PBS told me I could have my own program plus still be a reporter. I couldn't turn down the combination."

Ifill remains true to her journalistic roots and worries that the line between respected news organizations and all the other information outlets in the world is blurring.

"I think people watch Jay Leno and get as much information about [Republican vice-presidential nominee] Dick Cheney as they do from The New York Times," she says. "And information is fungible: Once it seeps into the brain, no one knows where they got it."

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