Julian Bond interviews journalist Gwen Ifill in this installment of "Explorations in Black Leadership." The series is presented by the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia.
BOND: Thank you for being on Explorations in Black Leadership. We very much appreciate your being with us.
IFILL: I’m thrilled to be here, Julian.
BOND: Let me begin — you were born after the Brown case, but do you have any notions of what it meant in your family, in your circle, when it was decided in ’54 and ’55?
IFILL: It’s interesting, because I was born in ’55 and so therefore theoretically I grew up at a time in which it was assumed that there are opportunities available to you, but it also always affects your parents, the opportunities that they know were not available. My parents were immigrants. They came to this country because, I like to say, they chose to be Americans, but at the same time, they were very patriotic about what this country could provide them and their children, but at the same time, they also were very clear-eyed about what the country was denying people like their children, who looked like their children, so the idea that —
We didn’t grow up with the idea that everything was automatically available to us, even though by the time I was born, a lot more was available. We grew up with the understanding that you had to fight for almost everything you got, that people were going to deny you, if they could, and that you shouldn’t carry it as a chip on your shoulder, but as a way of — a way of setting up what your standards ought to be to overcome, so my father fancied himself a civil rights activist and marched in the street. My mother feared he would be deported to Panama at all times. And we just understood growing up in the ’60s, which were very turbulent, even though by then, Brown v. Board was a given, that there was always going to be a fight for something and that anything worth having and getting and holding onto was worth fighting for and it didn’t mean that you went around expecting the worst all the time of your fellow man and woman, but it meant that you had to find a way to always factor into your thinking. And so Brown, even though it was a done deal by the time I went to school, it still was the kind of backdrop for everything else that was to come for us.
BOND: Was it a signal to you and your family that the country wanted to treat you right?
IFILL: You know, we didn’t talk about Brown precisely but when you think about the civil rights legislation that became law while I was, what, nine years old? Yeah, that was a signal. It was optimism. It was a promise that you could do all the things that — my parents told us we could do anything, right? They mistakenly told the daughters that as well as the sons, so we took him at his word, and as a result, you saw laws and barriers falling as you went along so, yeah, you came away from that hopeful and optimistic about the possibilities.
BOND: And looking back over this period, the civil rights laws, Brown in ’54 and ’55, ’64, ’65, all these things, have these turned out the way you thought at the time they’d turn out?
IFILL: Yes —
BOND: That is, have they accomplished what at the time you may have thought they would?
IFILL: Yes, in terms of they provided access. I never had to doubt whether I was going to be able to apply to any college I wanted to apply to. It never occurred to me that I would be denied something like that, education, because of limitations that were put in place by law. All that was done. All that was sealed. It never —
Now, does it mean that [I] didn’t go South for first time in my life with some trepidation. We were raised in the Northeast and I didn’t go South until I was an adult. I knew the history books and it made me nervous, but I didn’t automatically assume that people wouldn’t allow me to stay in a hotel. I didn’t automatically assume that people wouldn’t provide me with — allow me to get in any vehicle or conveyance I wanted to. But you always were a little bit aware of the history and the possibility of it, so that when you were denied something as simple as a decent table in a restaurant, it was all lurking. We all said, “Ah, it hasn’t completely gone away,” and in the Northeast, it had not completely gone away, so it wasn’t just the South.
BOND: But did you ever discover that what you thought was an ah-ha moment turned out to just be they just put me at another table?
IFILL: Yeah, probably, but except that with this — you can’t spend a lot of time assuming the worst about why people do things. It almost always has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with them. It has to do with their biases, with their constraints, with their inability to imagine anything more and so rather than — and I tell this to young people all the time — rather than going around saying, “Ah ha, they didn’t give this to me because I was black or I was a woman,” you stop and think — they didn’t give it to me because they couldn’t imagine me in this role and it’s my job then — it’s a tougher job than my white counterparts have, but it’s just what it is — my job is to force them to see me in a different role and then you act on that.
BOND: And one incidence in your life, this disparate treatment, worked out well for you, this ugly note left for you in the newsroom where you're working or where you’re interning and the result is that you get a job.
IFILL: It’s true. I was working my very first job at the Boston Herald American and it was an internship, a summer internship, and I was very happy to be in a newsroom. That’s what I’d always wanted to do is work in a newsroom and all I was was a gofer. You go for this, you for that. I was just a kid in the newsroom. There were lots of them. There were several of us. Of course, I was the only one of color and they put me in the photo department to be the gofer there. I discovered years later that they put me there because they didn’t want me in the newsroom proper, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. I was just happy to be working. And I came to work one day and I found a note for me on my little workspace and it said, “Nigger, go home.” And honestly, my first response was, I wonder who this is for. I didn’t automatically think, "Oh, what an insult." I automatically thought, "What an odd thing to find here," and when I showed it to my boss, he instantly got what it was and was immediately apologetic.
Of course, by then it was dawning on me this was for me and it dawned on everybody fairly quickly who had written it. It was an older white guy who felt threatened by my presence, but they didn’t want to punish him. They didn’t want to fire him which is what they would’ve had to do if they publicly said who was responsible for it, so instead, they said, “Listen, you know, if you ever need a job, you ever need a place to be, you know, come back to us. We love you. We think you’re great.” In other words, “don’t sue us,” which, of course, I was too naïve to have considered at the time, so I put that in my back pocket and had no intention of ever taking them up on it because in my 1977 way, I thought that I would never work for these racists, but I also realized a year later when I was looking for a job that there were no other jobs. And so I went back to them and said, “Remember this promise? Remember this chit?” And so they gave me a job, but then it was on me. Getting in the door because I had survived this insult or behaved in a certain way was one thing. But then when I got in, I had to prove to them that I could write, that I could meet a deadline, that I could be a good colleague in a newsroom, in a newsroom environment where once again, I was one of very few people of color, so once — so just getting in the door isn’t enough. It’s what I always say about affirmative action. It’s nice that the door opens but then what do you do once you walk through it, and that was the next challenge for me.
BOND: Let me back up a little bit from your working at the newspaper. Who were the people who influenced whom you — the person you are today and I’m assuming you’re going to say parents and so on, so I want you to talk about them, but others, too.
IFILL: Parents are huge for me, partly because our lives were so prescribed by being immigrants and being — my father was an ordained minister so we moved a lot.
BOND: What did being immigrants mean?
IFILL: Being immigrants means that African Americans and West Indian Americans aren’t necessarily on the same page. There’re the same tensions between people from other places. Maybe it’s the same, people from Alabama and Georgia. I don’t know. I just know that we were different, but that was exacerbated by the fact that my father was an AME minister and we moved every couple of years so it wasn’t like I grew up in one community my whole life and made the same sort of friends who I kept lifelong. So we were always being put in positions where we were new, where we were the other, not just with people of other races but also within our race. And we were the preacher’s kids, so everybody was watching us and keeping an eye on us and making sure we weren’t misbehaving, so there was a lot that made us tighter as a family because we were often the only people we knew in a certain situation.
In addition to that, my father was outspoken. He was a loud mouth. He was someone who didn’t take no for an answer. He was incredibly articulate in the best meaning of that word. He was someone who didn’t ever — he saw injustice and spoke up, which meant that he was often in awkward positions, but I watched that. I watched that, and I also watched my mother who was, at first glance, looked to be a pretty neat preacher’s wife who just basically carried the water for everyone else, but that’s not true. She raised an incredible family and she raised — altogether, there were four boys and two girls and so she had a hand in shaping us and telling us what the possibilities were and that’s when I say my parents — I don’t mean just because they were nice parents and they raised us well — but because they never told us what the limitations were first. They always told us what the possibilities were first. And therefore, when I then went into the workplace and people told me, “No, you can’t do that,” my first instinct wasn’t "Oh well, they’re right. I can’t do that." My first instinct was, "Well, what are the possibilities here or is it even something I want to do?" And occasionally along the way, I encountered people who saw that in me.
IFILL: My first college journalism professor, a guy by the name of Alden Poole, at Simmons College in Boston, he had grown up as a newspaperman. In fact, at the newspaper where I’d gotten that note, he’d worked there. And he would tell stories in class about newspapering which I just loved, but he also saw possibilities in me even though — he’ll tell you now — my first classes were not great. There were C's that were a score in my first journalism classes, but that didn’t make him look at me and say, “Oh, she’ll never work.” He assumed there were possibilities for me. He saw it in me. And didn’t say so. Didn’t come and praise me or make me his pet in any way and, in fact, it was only years later that I looked back and saw that and was able to realize that when people look at you and say, “Oh sure, you can do that,” that makes you think, "Oh, sure, I can do that." It begins to play away some of the self-doubt that we automatically have, especially as women about what’s possible, about what’s expected of us, and along the way, and I seldom realized at the time, I kept encountering people —Tim Russert at NBC News just said, “Oh, you can do TV.” I didn’t know that. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t aim for it, but because he expected it of me, I thought, "Well, maybe I can." And along the way, you keep meeting people like that and it makes you who you are.
BOND: In some ways, you’re a different mix of the kind of person who sat across from me in these series of interviews we’ve done, and one thing that makes you different isn’t gender necessarily, but it’s being in the AME Church which is out of the mainstream — well, not out of the mainstream, but you know what I mean. The Baptists are predominant and so large, so it’s the AME Church, immigrant, the child of immigrants and the interest in this profession which not everyone follows and the feeling that you’ve received from those around you that you can do these thing and I wonder, can you parse those? Is one dominant, one more powerful than the others?
IFILL: The AME Church is significant because it was a church — we’re very wedded to the history of the church. The church, formed by freed slaves who tried to worship in the Methodist Episcopal, a white Methodist Episcopal Church and were pulled off their knees. The idea that Richard Allen walked out of that church, walked to his blacksmith shop and started his own denomination which is now around the world, was a very empowering idea. You couldn’t grow up with knowing that history without thinking, without saying — and then say, “Oh, I can’t do it.” You were part of a tradition, a historic tradition and a faith tradition that was about saying, “I can do it.”
BOND: It also strikes me as a fighting church.
IFILL: It is.
BOND: As opposed to the others. Not that the others never fight, but AMEs always fight.
IFILL: It’s a very political church and I first learned politics and learned to love politics in the AME Church because we have an Episcopal form of government which means we have elected bishops and the politics in the AME Church was as political as anything I’ve covered in national life and I learned what that was like and what trade-offs were like and what bartering for votes was like and what old-fashioned campaigns were like. The quadrennial general conferences of the AME Church weren’t that far different from the quadrennial Democratic and Republican national conventions I’ve covered, so I got an appreciation for politics. I also got an appreciation for the connection between what politics is and what even faith is and what actual action is and so it made sense to me that there was a continuum among all these things and that my life was directly affected. I couldn’t say, “Oh, civil rights, that’s nice but it has nothing to do with me.” I was always fairly clear it had a direct connection in what I could do. And so all of these things together probably made me who I was and because we got the newspaper in our house every day. We watched the news every night. We were very clear that the marches against the Vietnam War and national assassinations and moments of grieving, that those came right in our living room. The first time I ever saw my father cry was when John F. Kennedy died. It felt very real to us and so that’s what brought me — my — that nurtured my interest in current events and it nurtured my interest in seeing if I could find a way to write about it, to actually be in the front row and ask those questions.
BOND: I don’t want to dwell on the church too much, but I also think that the AME Church is a church which just doesn’t fight among the members, but fights for rights, fights for justice —
IFILL: Fights for things.
BOND: — fights for things. Is that right?
IFILL: The church I’m a member of here in Washington, D.C. — Frederick Douglass sat in the pews there. It matters that Rosa Parks was an AME to us. We weren’t told just to sit quietly and wait for the world to get better. You were supposed to have an act — there was a connection. We looked at Jesus as someone who was an activist, not just someone who was a religious figure, and that made a big difference.
BOND: Your father’s engagement as a civil rights activist, how did he communicate this to the children? How does he let you know what he’s doing and why he’s doing it?
IFILL: Well, he had a pulpit.
BOND: Yes, I understand.
IFILL: And so, having a pulpit makes it very easy to communicate not only to your children but to everyone. He didn’t hesitate to put on his dashiki and wear it in the pulpit. He didn’t hesitate to get involved. I remember when we lived in central Pennsylvania outside of Harrisburg in a food co-op program that was founded for and by African Americans in the downtown. He brought his activities home and talked about it and preached about it from the pulpit and we had no choice but to listen, so after a while, it kind of sank in.
BOND: Because the AME Church like the Methodist Church moves its ministers on regular intervals, you are, as you said, making new friends over and over and over again. How’d you feel about this?
IFILL: Oh, I hated it at the time. I thought it was terrible, especially when I was uprooted in high school and when I thought I was going to be a member of, you know, the band or whatever I was aspiring to. It wasn’t great for one’s social life growing up. But looking back on it now, I realize what it did was it put me in new situations all the time where I had to start from scratch, where I had to make myself known and liked and where I got to learn brand new things every time. As a result, now I’m in a profession where I’m often thrust into new situations with new people, where I wake up in the morning and there’s a coup in Macedonia and I have to know about Macedonia by six o'clock that night and I have the capability of pulling all of that in. And that's — and part of that is being thrust into new situations over and over again and making new friends.
BOND: Now, besides education, religion, what else in your world or the larger society pushed and pulled on you? And let me jump back to schools very quickly. Did you — were you active in student government of any kind? Class president? That kind of thing?
IFILL: We were kind of nerdy kids, so we weren’t allowed to go out much so we had to have our fun in school, so, yeah, we were involved in Student Senate, Student Forum, student government. We sang in the college choirs, in the church choirs, and part of that was because of the way that our family was structured in which, you know, my brothers were instructed never to leave me at school. We had to come home together and go to school together. So if my brother was involved in student government, so was I. If one of us was in the choir, so was the other. Not sports so much or those kinds of social activities, but activities which really —
Our fun place to go on the weekends as kids was the library. I wanted to be a librarian for a while, just because I loved the idea of being surrounded by books and knowledge and anybody would let me have a book and read it. That’s not something a whole lot of young people who now have interactive little PSDs to play with or whatever they’re called, but for us, that was an escape. That was a great place and it was a place our parents felt safe letting us go.
BOND: Doesn’t sound like nerds. Sounds like great kids.
IFILL: Yeah, well, I think we turned out okay.
BOND: Fast forward again to your profession. Now you’re a journalist and the profession is under assault financially and many different ways. What’s going to happen?
IFILL: I don’t know. I actually am very troubled about the direction of the newspaper industry, especially. It’s not so great in television either because it’s the same problem, which is resources. It’s seriousness of purpose. It’s finding a way to actually tell the stories and telling them seriously, not being distracted by the next shiny bright light that goes by or the next missing college student who goes away, and actually trying to remember what’s focused. The distinction — the dilemma for newspapers is pretty distinct. I worked at four newspapers before I came into television, so it didn’t occur to me that I’d ever be in television, so that’s where my heart is. And to find that newspapers are now at a place where they can no longer make the financial model work, that the classified advertising is no longer the engine it used to be because Craigslist has popped up or that there is no way to tell a story because there’re so many other ways to get stories.
The problem with that is not that there’s — more information is good. I think it’s great. There’re lots of places for people to get information. But there’s this huge blurring which is underway about what is information and what is news. And so if I turn on my home computer, I will find — my home page will pop up and it will tell me the three most important stories of the day and they might not be important at all. It might be about something that somebody said at a music video award ceremony and everybody’s talking about that, but that — is that news? There are more important stories. It’s why I think public television has a niche because it will always be a place where you know you can go and find it and there will always be people who want to find it in depth, but there’re so many ways to be distracted and to go off in other directions and I’m an old-fashioned, hold-a-newspaper-in-my-hand kind of person, partly because even though I know I can find all the information on the web, I’m more likely to read a story about something I’m not otherwise interested in if I come across it in the paper. If I’m looking at it online, I’m just going to click on what I was already interested in, so that immediately shrinks my knowledge, what I’m capable of learning that day. And that bothers me.
BOND: And it’s happening to you. It’s happening to all of us and it really means a sort of dumbing down of the American public.
IFILL: And we end up going in search of sources that tell us what we know already. Or it’s like, “I think X is bad. I’m going to go and watch the channel that tells me X is bad. I’m not going to go and engage in a debate with anybody about why the other side might have a point.” That’s the basic problem for me, which is there’re fewer conversations now where there’re two people engaged on either side enter it with the possibility that the other guy has a point and it shrinks our understanding.
BOND: Now, I’ve read and we’ve talked a little bit here, and I’ve read in things about you, about why — how long you wanted to be a journalist, but was there — I’ve had other women to tell me it was Brenda Starr. Did you ever have a Brenda Starr moment?
IFILL: Melba Tolliver.
BOND: Yes, I’ve heard about Melba. Tell us who Melba Tolliver is.
IFILL: Melba Tolliver was the only African American woman I’d ever seen on television and she had a big Afro and when we turned on our black and white set, there she was. I believe she worked for CBS at the time. And I’ve never met her. All I know is that she left a very big impression upon me because I didn’t want to be in television, but here was a black woman asking the questions. I liked that. I could see that. And to this day, when people approach me and tell me that they’re glad to see me on television because they have daughters who see me and they see that same thing, that makes my day. That’s what I want to know, the sense of possibility.
I wanted to be a journalist because I like to ask questions. And I like the idea that someone might feel responsible for answering them. I liked to watch presidential news conferences. I loved to watch political conventions, watching John Chancellor get carried off the floor or Dan Rather. I found that all terribly romantic, so though it wasn’t about a woman or even about an African American, it was just about the idea of being in the middle of the mix and getting the questions I had answered, and that wasn’t always possible just sitting on your hands at home.
BOND: And are you’re thinking when you’re asking these questions, or thinking about the questions you’re going to ask, that you’re asking them for other people who’re not there, who can’t sit there where you sit?
IFILL: Absolutely. Absolutely. It would just be an ego trip if I thought I was asking them for myself. I’ve moderated two vice presidential debates and in both cases, I entered the question preparation process thinking very carefully about what can I bring to this that will make people at home say, “Oh, I didn’t know that or that will inform my understanding about the vote I cast.” It’s not about — if it were about me, that I’d ask a smart question and kind of preen and chase them around the table, “Why didn’t you answer my question, Mr. Senator?” That doesn’t really add anything to the conversation. In fact, it detracts because it makes me the story. I’m much more interested if someone at home says, “Oh, that’s something I hadn’t thought of.” That’s why I’m asking questions.
BOND: Are there times when you’re covering a story where you feel you are personally involved? What about Boston school desegregation problems which certainly involved people of color? Did you feel that you had to maintain a distance?
IFILL: You know, I don’t remember feeling that. It was really interesting covering the Boston schools because in Boston in the 1970s, you could easily feel personally threatened by any situation that you were in, no matter what color you were. If you just crossed the wrong bridge, you [would be in] the wrong area of town, but I found it was a test for me to talk to people who I had nothing in common with whatsoever, members of the Boston School Committee who were adamantly against busing and would’ve, if given the chance, denied me every opportunity I’d ever had in education, but I wanted to hear what they had to say, to my face. I wanted to see how would they relate to me and I found out so often that they related to me perfectly fine, that the anti- was against a general idea of something, not against me personally, so I was almost always able to separate out my sense of who I was. Now, I don’t know if they were, but I was, from what it was that I thought they believed.
I covered Pat Robertson when he ran for president in 1988, my first campaign, and I remember thinking at the time, "Oh, I don’t know, I’ve heard all these things about Pat Robertson — is he going to be hostile to me?" Not only was he not hostile, but more important, the people who attended his rallies were not hostile. They were welcoming. They wanted to tell you what they thought and why they thought it.
Now, if I’d walked in to those rallies saying, “Oh, they’re going to hate me because I’m black,” I wouldn’t have heard what they were saying. In fact, they would offer me a chair and ask me — and they reminded me as much of people I saw at Jesse Jackson rallies. There were people who didn’t feel anyone listened to them and if you suggested you wanted to listen, they were perfectly welcoming, so it taught me — those early experiences — taught me that the wider understanding I brought to the story, the more likely I was to hear something I hadn’t thought of before and that people were not going to knee-jerk reject me just because of who I looked like.
BOND: When did a time come in your life, or did a time come in your life, when you said to yourself — maybe not in these words, because I look at you reacting against this already — “I’m a leader.”
IFILL: I don’t think I probably ever said those words.
BOND: Not in those words, no, but sometimes —
IFILL: You know, I — it happens at home with family. You’re conscious at some point that people are listening to you and that your presence or absence in any debate or any situation can change the outcome. It started — if I came home for Thanksgiving, I knew it was a different mix than if I didn’t come home for Thanksgiving. I knew that —
BOND: From college?
IFILL: From college. I knew that my presence in the family mix made for a different — I don’t know — experience. It was kind of empowering to know that my presence or my absence mattered, and in this business, that comes home to me mostly when I talk to young people. When young people react to me in a way that makes it sound like they’re listening or that what I’ve said has sunk in or they recite something I’ve said, then I think, "Oh, I am leading them somewhere." I have a much more — since I’ve been in television, because people ascribe so much power to people who are in their living rooms in a little box, and so therefore people listen more carefully. And they didn’t necessarily know who you were.
IFILL: When I worked for The New York Times I was covering the White House for The New York Times, as powerful a position you can have in journalism, but it wasn’t until I started appearing on television talking about the work I was doing for The New York Times on Washington Week that people started listening in a different way, started returning my phone calls, starting treating me with a different level of respect not because they think television is better than print, but because they felt they knew me after seeing me.
BOND: But it also says that they knew you because they saw you, as opposed to reading your byline and knowing just your name.
BOND: And television made that great a difference?
IFILL: Made a huge difference. It made my job easier to do as a print reporter because people felt, whether it was correct or not, that they had a sense of who I was. Now, in television, I mean, this backfires because it’s possible to do television in a way where you’re only — you’re a mile wide and a inch deep and people don’t know very much and you don’t know very much and you can have a very successful career in television without really knowing very much, but the secret is to hit that balance.
BOND: And how do you make sure you’re hitting that balance all the time?
IFILL: You don’t all the time. You try. You listen to yourself. You police what you do and how you say it, and you try to make sure that you’re asking, you know, not the how-do-you-feel questions but the what-does-it-mean questions and that requires kind of a constant awareness of what it is that you’re saying and what you’re doing and how you’re saying it and then listening to the answers. My great fear in my interviewing is that I ask a question and someone says, “Well, and that’s when I killed my wife,” and I don’t hear it because I’m thinking of the next question. You want to really always be on and that’s harder than people think.
BOND: That’s never happened, has it?
IFILL: No. Well, not quite that, but close. Sometimes you don’t hear it. Sometimes you don’t hear.
BOND: Would you think of yourself then from this description that television had a much greater impact on returned phone calls and access that you had, and that talking to young people, you get a greater feedback from what you say than you may if you talked to adults, I’m guessing?
IFILL: Well, when Saturday Night Live did a spoof of the vice presidential debate and Queen Latifah played me, I got huge street cred with kids in a way that that The News Hour on PBS somehow didn’t always pull off, so that’s fine. I look at it as a way in, that means people will listen.
BOND: But I wonder if that means that in a sense you’re a role model and a leadership figure. That you’re a role model because let’s say young girls can see you and say, “Whoo, a woman just like me” —
IFILL: I very much embrace the idea of being a role model and I guess maybe I embrace that more than the notion of leadership because leadership means that you set out to take people some place, whereas I set out to be and to let you see from what I am that you can be that, too. That, to me, is role model. And I will listen and advise and encourage every opportunity I get young people who’re trying to figure it out for themselves, but there’s nothing more powerful than my just doing it and doing it well.
BOND: And you take people, too, in the job that you do, you’re showing them that there’s a different way to get information than typical, as seen on TV.
BOND: And typically seen in some print press. There’s a different way to get information and we’re going to show it to you.
IFILL: Having the time is key. It's — the dirty little secret about television is that most people you interview, you realize, on commercial television that you have five minutes and if they talk for a long time, the five minutes is up whether you’ve gotten to the heart of the story or not, but if you’ve got ten minutes, you’re going to get back to the point. You have a little time to drill down and a little time to make sure that they’re listening to you and that makes all the difference in the world. I don’t fault my commercial colleagues in the commercial world who do morning television or even evening television and can’t quite get to the heart of the story because they don’t have the time to do it. That’s why there have to be all kinds of choices out there for people to pursue.
BOND: And so the knowledge that there’re built-in no choices. Or built-in bad choices has to be distressing.
IFILL: Yes, but what in life isn’t a bunch of choices, some of them bad, some of them good. You just balance them out.
BOND: It just strikes me that we don’t hear enough complaint about the bad choices that are forced upon the profession you practice. You don’t hear enough critiques.
IFILL: Well, we see the bad results.
BOND: Or if we do, they’re internal and those of us on the outside watching don’t ever hear them.
IFILL: Well, we do see the bad results of the bad choices. It’s like the school teacher I was talking about who didn’t feel like he had any choice but to deny someone, these children, access to the President’s speech. He had bad choices that he had to make. We often cover things or don’t cover things because we have bad choices having to do with time or resources, especially resources, but you make the best of it. Whining about it doesn’t really get it done.
BOND: Well, maybe shouting and yelling about it.
IFILL: Well, we do some of that.
BOND: What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? Do these — how do these interact for you? Vision, philosophy, style.
IFILL: Style can exist without vision or philosophy. You can be all style with nothing else. And we can name names, but why do that? There’re a lot of people who are very stylish. Stylishness can help, however. It can help you if you can get — if you have a philosophy that you want to get across. It helps to be accessible. Television is still a medium in which you really want to connect with the people you’re talking to. You want to break through the screen and speak to them. Otherwise, if you’re boring or if you’re an otherwise — you’re just running on and you don’t have any panache, why should anyone listen? So those two things.
Vision is the most important part of all of it, because a lot of people have philosophies but they have no vision. Their philosophy is a point of view they had settled on and it doesn’t matter what anybody says — that’s their philosophy and they’re sticking with it. But if you have a vision which to me means that you are trying to accomplish something, there’s a curve — there’s something at the end of that rainbow for you, then your philosophy can drive that and the style can achieve it, but you have to have the vision first. To me, that’s the most important.
BOND: I read something that in the research we did for this and Business Officer in ’09, this year, that you said your vision for your career is to be an intermediary for the public. What do you mean by that?
IFILL: Did I say that? I like that.
BOND: Yes, you said that.
IFILL: It means — it means — it’s a version of what we were talking about which is, I’m not there because I’m there. I’m not confused about why I get to be in the interview with the President. I’m not — he’s not talking to me because I’m Gwen. He’s talking to me because he’s speaking to someone over my shoulder and that’s the reason why I’m there, so my responsibility is not just to say, “Well, you know, I was wondering what you ate last night because I was curious.” Who cares? That might be my curiosity but I’m not speaking for anybody. So my responsibility, and that’s why I get the chance to be in these chairs, is to try to do that.
You know, on Washington Week, our responsibility is not just to say, “You know, there was a guy who yelled at the president on the floor of the House,” but to go beneath that and say, “What was driving that? Who was that? What effect did it actually have on the substance of the matter at hand? And what was the substance of his complaint?” That is not just my curiosity, because I can be as shallow as anybody when it comes to curiosity. It’s a question of that I have a responsibility to speak for somebody else.
BOND: Some categorize the making of leaders in three ways. First, great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. And last, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these, if any, or a combination of these, fits the path that you’ve followed?
IFILL: Great confluence of events —
IFILL: What are the three again?
BOND: Great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. Or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times.
IFILL: Yes, it’s the confluence part, because I didn’t predict anything about my career. I knew I wanted to be in journalism. I thought I wanted to be a reporter and maybe one day I’d to get to be Mary McGrory. I didn’t think I’d be in television. I didn’t think I’d be an anchor at my own program. I wasn’t even certain I’d be in Washington. I wasn’t certain that I was going to be able to do anything that anybody thought was any good. I didn’t have that much self-confidence, but the confluence of events in my career and my life had put me in position to have an impact which I don’t think I necessarily anticipated.
BOND: So had you been born twenty years earlier, would this have happened, do you believe?
IFILL: No. I don’t believe it would’ve happened. Because for all the reasons we’ve talked about, there were laws in place by the time I came along. Those confluence of events which allowed people to look and see me standing there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even gotten to the front door. I mean, I had a — even in high school, I had a guidance counselor who told me, “You’re not going to be able to get into this school, you really shouldn’t apply,” who spent a lot of time discouraging this, and, you know — his name was Mr. McDuffy, so I always think about the Mr. McDuffys in my life who told you, “No, don’t bother, don’t try.” Well, yes, Mr. McDuffy could’ve very easily had an effect on me had I not grown up in the home I grew up in and made me think, "Oh, well, I can’t possibly try that." So the confluence of events — the home I grew up in, the people who told me I could do it. The people who countered the Mr. McDuffys, the Alden Pooles who just without making a big deal of it, assumed that I could do it, and every step along the way, so I don’t really — I’m not one of those people who had a five- or a ten-year plan, but things have worked out.
BOND: Well, and worked out well.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
IFILL: It is — it's articulation. I don’t necessarily think of what I do as leading a movement, though.
BOND: Well, can you think of it as a movement for sober discussion of issues?
IFILL: Or a movement for explaining.
IFILL: Explaining why, why it matters.
BOND: Then you do. You don’t have to be walking down the street with a picket sign.
IFILL: Oh, even though I wouldn’t mind doing that sometimes. I don’t know what I’d be picketing for, but I like the idea of it, the romance of it. No, I do think it’s a matter of being able to be explanatory, and it’s amazing how rare it is to know how to ask a question the right way or to be quick enough on your feet to recognize that you have just learned something and that this is something that needs more expansion on.
The best interviewers, the best people who do this for a living, are people who are at the end of it, curious. They’re leaning in. They’re listening carefully. They’re picking up on things that we haven’t heard before. If you’re bored by your own conversation, people at home are going to be bored, too, so that requires over time, a certain amount of accumulated skill — how do you do that, how do you stay curious, even if you weren’t curious about the issue? I mean, I come to work every day and I’m very likely to get an assignment about something I never previously cared about, but by six o'clock, I have to communicate to the folks at home that this is important and this is why.
BOND: How do you get to care about it? Macedonia, we mentioned earlier on. If you don’t care about Macedonia and you’ve never cared about Macedonia, you don’t know any Macedonians, how do you get interested in that?
IFILL: The reason you don’t care about it is because you don’t know any Macedonians, so you read. You read everything you can about the situation. Almost every subject that rises to the level of being a news story, once you’ve peeled back just the first couple of layers, are fascinating. There are people who are engaged. There’re people who are doing heroic things. There are issues at stake. There is money at stake. At some point, it really affects my life. I may not have cared about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but guess what? A whole lot of people’s mortgages were affected by what happened to that company. Lehman Brothers failed. I didn’t know what Lehman Brothers did, but their collapse had incredible ripple effects. So it’s just re-education every single day, getting to the bottom of it, finding out why it matters.
BOND: Has there ever been a case where you couldn’t find out where it mattered?
IFILL: Yes, there has. I’ll never tell.
BOND: Do you have a general philosophy that guides you through life? Has it sustained you through challenges or moments of alienation?
BOND: And what is that philosophy?
IFILL: That God will never leave me lonely. That I am here for a purpose and that I have a safety net that is always there and it doesn’t mean that I’m always to get what I think I want. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to achieve the life I imagined for myself at every turn, but it does mean that there is a reason for my existence and there’s a reason for what I’m doing and that I’ve ended up where I’ve ended up for that reason and I don’t have to always understand what it is.
BOND: Let me ask you some questions about race. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there a distinction and is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
IFILL: To the last question, no. There is not such a thing as a race-transcending leader. And if I’ve learned anything in the last year or two when I was working on this book I wrote, it’s that there’s no reason for there to be a race-transcendence. The question I — I get this question a lot from audiences — “Why do you even mention that the president is African American?” they want to know. They don’t understand why it matters. “Didn’t we just get past that?” And my answer is always this — “Why does it bother you to talk about race unless you consider race to be a negative?” If you consider race to be a positive, as I do, a wonderful characteristic which makes you who you are, which gives you a set of cultural norms and backgrounds, which doesn’t make you — it’s not a threat. It’s not taking anything away from anybody else. It’s just part of what shapes me. Why wouldn’t we talk about it? Why wouldn’t we talk about gender? Why wouldn’t we talk about anything else?
And, to me, it’s an enhancing. It would be enhancing if we as a nation and as a world, I guess, could talk about race in a way that wasn’t about blame and redress and argument and guilt. That’s what people are scared of when you bring up race. They’re afraid you’re going to accuse them of something, whether you’re black and you’re being accused of being insufficiently black or whether you’re white and you’re being accused of being racist, whether you’re Latino, whatever it is, race is a factor and we should just embrace it as a factor, not everything of what we are.
BOND: Do you think that sometimes they believe that the mentioning it at all is a threat?
BOND: Not that you’re going to threaten them later? First, put it on the table, then I’m going to accuse you of something, but just the fact that I mentioned it. Why is that?
IFILL: There was a very funny headline in a blog right after the president spoke up about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest and said it was a stupid effort by the Cambridge Police and everybody got worked up that the President had said this. And the headline the next day was, “Breaking News: The President’s A Black Guy.” And that got to the heart of whatever everybody’s discomfort was, which is he was speaking as an African American, but the deal that we thought we’d cut with him was that he was going to be nothing. He was going to be other. He never said that. Nobody else ever said that. And there’s no reason why he should be that. This is part of what his experience was and he was speaking to that, but once he betrayed that race consciousness, a lot of people were made nervous by that. Some of my best white friends, some of my best friends are white, as they say, and they were made nervous by that and I don’t know why we should. I have to live inside this skin and inside the circumstances that my skin color creates for me in this nation, and it doesn’t necessarily — I don’t consider it all to be a bad thing. In fact, I consider it to be pretty darn good.
BOND: Do you have a different leadership style — and maybe this is not a good question for you — do you have a difference leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race, or all white?
IFILL: I probably speak differently. We all have kind of our codes that we do in different settings. I don’t — but what I don’t ever — I'm never in a leadership role in that way. I speak to groups which are all black or mixed or all white and I find that with all-black groups, you can speak in a lot more code. I mean, there’re a lot of things you can say when everybody gets the joke without you having to say, “and this is what it means.” But it’s the same approach in every case which is to be as accessible as possible and to make people feel comfortable that they’re listening to someone who’s not judging them.
BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen who writes, “The danger of continually thinking in terms of race or gender — ” He writes, “Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way, that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Do you see a danger of divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership?
IFILL: I don’t, because it depends on what you mean by that. I think that when you look at where we have come in my lifetime, the fact that there is such a thing as black leadership and it’s not completely defined by black folk voting for black folk, it’s quite remarkable and worth exploring and talking about why it is and how we’ve come to this point. I don’t think it’s — that’s the idea that it’s somehow to talk, to speak its name, is to somehow be negative or to put us in a difficult position. We have to speak its name. It hasn’t gone away. There is still a tremendous amount of, and I hate to use the word racism because people get all worked up about that word, but it’s a question of someone thinking that you’re taking something from me. We’ve got to talk about it. How do we even get to the point where we understand how we as a country are growing or how we’re evolving unless we at least mention it and then find out what it means? Half the time we’re speaking at cross purposes about what we mean when we say race.
BOND: Do you think that black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans? Is there a point at which that obligation ends and one can pursue his or her own professional ambitions, that you can — if you have an obligation to the race, does it stop some time and you can go on about your business?
IFILL: No, it never stops. It only stops if somehow you wake up the next day and you’re no longer of color. I can’t imagine it stopping. It’s an obligation but it’s not the same obligation for everyone. It doesn’t mean you get up in the morning and put the bag of stones over your shoulder and say, “Okay, here I go on that uphill battle to save the people.” Everybody has a different role to play, but it doesn’t — but you still have to always be clear about who you are and what your role is and how you got there. You didn’t just land there by accident because someone decided you were great. Often, race played a factor, positive and negative, in whether you got there or whether you didn’t. Just factor that into your thinking and keep going.
BOND: Or it may well have played a role as a motivator.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader? We’ve already agreed you are a leader.
IFILL: Okay, if we must. I think it’s being there. I think it’s exploding myths about who we are. There’re a lot of people for years who could very conveniently fall into this notion of defining black folk as just being people on the street corner or people who weren’t about anything — or, heroic, you know, someone standing on the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and giving a fabulous speech, or an athlete or an entertainer but nothing in between. There aren’t a whole lot of folk, and I probably know them all, who do exactly what I do and that explodes a whole notion about what journalism is, about what broadcast journalism is, about what someone who can speak for the country and asking someone who’s running for president or vice president a question. My presence explodes a lot of notions. I’m very keen on that, about what limitations are. And I don’t really care if it explodes notions for people who were thinking the worst of black people. I care that it explodes notions for my godchildren and that they take it for granted that it is possible or that someone is supposed to be in that chair or that when Barack Obama was elected and I said to my twelve-year-old, at the time, godson, “Isn’t it great, we have a black president,” and he said, “Yeah, uh-huh. Could I go play?’ We did what we did so that he could say that and be impressed but not overly impressed by this. For him, his life is a lot broader than that and it is not defined solely by that, yet he sees that guy there and that means there are possibilities. And that’s important.
BOND: I’m surprised when you began speaking about this, you said you didn’t care as much if it exploded myths held by people who think poorly of you. Why not?
IFILL: I just can’t spend a whole lot of time —
BOND: No, I don’t want you to spend all your life doing it.
IFILL: No. I mean, I just — there’re people who are going to form opinions and expect you to spend your life proving to them that their opinions of you are wrong. I haven’t got time for that. A good example is before the vice presidential debate in 2008, a lot of people decided I was a terribly horrible biased commentator because I was in the middle of writing a book in which Barack Obama was going to be a featured player, a book about race. I believe that they were more upset that I was writing a book about race than I was writing a book about Barack Obama. Because it wasn’t a book about Barack Obama. No one had seen it. No one — I hadn’t written it, so I knew were reacting to something else. And because they were reacting to something else and it was something which I knew to be incorrect and wrong, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to prove to them that I was fair. I just had to do the job and I had to do the job as much for myself and the people I represent in my profession as I had to do it for people who were going to be naysayers whether there were facts who supported it or not.
BOND: Did you think that some of those people may have been simply misinformed? And having some information might’ve made them better people?
IFILL: They were willfully misinformed.
BOND: All right.
BOND: In his book, Race Matters, Cornel West writes — that’s such a great title — “The crisis of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you see a crisis of leadership similar to this in black communities today and if you do, what makes that so?
IFILL: Well, it’s a crisis of leadership if you think that African Americans uniquely need to be led as if we need to anoint someone to take us from the wilderness. I think we’re past that. I think we’re at the point where it’s a broader swath of leadership we’re talking about. I consider leadership to be people who run for public office but also for people who open up a storefront, stores in an area of town which might not otherwise get commerce. I consider leadership to be volunteers who work with young girls. I consider leadership to be a broad range of things which don’t have to do with the ’60s notion of the one guy leading — or almost always the guy — leading everyone else so, sure, if you say — if your definition of leadership is a leader or a couple of a leaders, maybe there’s a crisis because that’s not the way we lead anymore and because of the sacrifices and because of the things that these single and dual leaders did, now we have this much broader idea of — we have the luxury of having a broader idea of what leadership is.
BOND: But isn’t that ’60s definition of leadership just that, a ’60s definition of leadership, and in an earlier period in American history, in our history, the definitions of people working with the Girl Scouts or working opening the store, would’ve fit leadership more aptly and therefore that when we think about leadership, we ought not just think about these ’60s leaders.
IFILL: Absolutely. We have to think about lots of ways in which we’re — I’m on the board of the Institute of Politics at Harvard where the students at Harvard — I don’t know how they do this — because they’re students at Harvard but they’re also tutoring students in Cambridge. They’re also doing a million different public service initiatives. Now, by doing public service initiatives, is that politics? Is that our old definition of what politics is? Well, no, it’s a new definition of what politics is. That’s where young people are motivated to move and just the same way in our community, we have to think about leadership in a broader sense which is not just about standing in a pulpit or standing at a podium.
BOND: Our society today, what kind of leaders does it demand?
IFILL: It demands moral examples as well as intellectual examples. It matters that the black family is in crisis and that when you have as a leader of the free world a black man who’s married to a black woman with two little black girls, that sends a different message, that — not only to the people who are the naysayers, who don’t believe the black family’s together, but also the people who are going to be future black families who say, "Hmm, here’s a standard that I can try to meet." It matters a great deal that we find a way to speak in a broader sense about what our problems are and not just have it all become a knee-jerk, "Well, I’m black so they did it to me."
BOND: How can we foster the most effective leaders for the future? How can we make sure that whatever the definition we attach to them is that there are a sufficient number of them, trained, equipped, and so on?
IFILL: Well, the first thing we do is what you just discussed and raised, which is broaden our notion of what leadership is. If we broaden our notion of what leadership is, then we can train people up to do a million different things which aren’t just one narrow destination. You can — part of it begins where my parents began, was the sense of possibility, and then the next part is the part of responsibility. You just don’t go and make a lot of money for yourself and say look what I’ve done for the people. No.
And the next part is execution and then what do you do and how do you do it. And then the entire — the moral standard, the fact that you are there, the fact that you are — that as you live, you’re conscious, especially if you’re in a visible role, of the fact that a lot of people are looking at the way you do things, how you execute it, and then trying to — and, hopefully, you’re setting a standard they can strive to meet.
BOND: Thank you. Thank you for setting a high standard. Thank you for being with us.
IFILL: Thank you, Julian.
Transcript from http://blackleadership.virginia.edu/transcript/ifill-gwen.