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PBS Anchor Judy Woodruff Warns That the Recent Attacks on the Press Subvert Democracy

Posted on Feb 17, 2017

  Judy Woodruff on the set of “PBS NewsHour.” (“PBS NewsHour” / CC 2.0)

This week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” a weekly radio show hosted by Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, explores the changing landscape of journalism. Scheer sits down with journalist Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, to delve into her past and discuss her vision of the press of the future.

Listen to the full interview below:

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Robert Scheer: Hello, this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence, done for KCRW. And the intelligence comes from my guests; in this case, it’s Judy Woodruff, the legendary journalist. You know here from, originally, NBC and then CNN, and then mostly, I think, from PBS, where she still is holding forth. Not only holding forth, but sort of starring. And I met Judy back during the Jimmy Carter campaign in 1976. And I want to begin there, Judy. Because the issue I had then—and I was one of these snobs from New York, and I really didn’t know the South. And I’d been through Plains and that part of Georgia in 1960. And we fast-forward to ’76—I wondered how much had changed. And I remember writing at that time in one of the profiles I did, oh, this new South is just the old South plus air conditioning, you know. Now, you were born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but you basically got your education, high school in Augusta; you knew Georgia well, you graduated from Duke, you went to work for a local station. And so was that just a smart-alecky thing that I was writing, and did the South change? And if it changed so much, as Jimmy Carter had expected, why did this election turn out the way it did, with a very sharp, racially divided vote in the South?

Judy Woodruff: Well, first of all, Bob, it’s great to talk to you. And I’m just so glad you started out by acknowledging that you were a snob back in 1976 [laughter]. I think that’s a wonderful piece of humility on your part. Do you want to elaborate on that before we talk any more?

Scheer: Well, I thought the South was a place of hicks and racists [laughter]. And, you know, and as I say, I’d been through there in ’60, and it was not a pleasant experience. And I participated—you know, there was Koinonia Farm was up the road from the Carters, and that was one of the rare places where they had actually tried integration, basically on a Christian basis; the Bible seemed to call for it, and they were, you know, bombed and shot up and everything. And some people in the Carter family helped them; Lillian, his mother, and Billy; but not others. And in fact, as long as we’re going back to that period, I remember leaving Plains during that election, and Hugh Carter, Uncle Hugh, had a store. And I remember going into that store with Jody Powell, and suddenly, with the media gone, Hugh Carter was being an old-fashioned, redneck racist. And Jody, who was Jimmy’s press secretary, was quite embarrassed. And I suddenly realized, wait a minute, maybe this whole thing is a movie set, and maybe I’m not being arrogant here. And as I say, if we bring it up to the present, where is the new South? It seems to be sharply divided along racial terms. Am I missing something?

Woodruff: Well, I think—you know, I just want to say that when I moved to Georgia I was, what, 12 or 13 years old; I had lived, had grown up as an Army brat, lived all over the world. And when I learned that my father had been assigned to Fort Gordon, Georgia, I immediately had a mental picture of cotton plantations, people going around barefooted, and I didn’t know what we were landing in. And I, even as a young teenager, was skeptical about moving to the South. And I came to understand, in the six years that I lived in Augusta, that the South is a multilayered place and that one blanket description doesn’t do justice to the South, just as it doesn’t do justice to any other part of the country. So, sure, there has been racism in the South, and sure, there have been some really terrible things done in the name of race and religion and ethnic prejudice; there’ve also been some good things that have come out of the South, just as they have every place else. So I’m going to start out by saying, I think it’s wrong to paint the South with a broad brush. Because there are exceptions to just about every rule. But your question, Bob, is has the South changed; I think the South had evolved by the time I moved there in the early 1960s, and it’s evolved even further. It’s today not the South that it was then; there’s a different economic base, the education picture is different. Having said that, the South still votes overwhelmingly conservative compared to much of the rest of the country—maybe not so conservative compared to the upper Midwest, if you look at what happened in this presidential election last year. But it has changed. And at the same time, Bob, you know very well that the political activism in the South has changed before our very eyes. And a lot of that, I think, has to do with who’s living there: you’ve got a lot of transplants from the North, who bring very different sensibilities; you’ve got communities, particularly communities of higher education, across the South, with people who have, I think, very different ideas from others who live in the South. You also have growing minority communities in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and so on, and they are making their voices heard. So it’s a much more complex and, I think, nuanced picture than people often paint. But you’re right—if you just look at who some of these states send to Washington, who are their senators, who are their members of Congress, who do they send to the House of Representatives—you know, it’s easy to, I think, to get a picture, but not entirely the accurate picture.

Scheer: Let me ask you about an area that I know you are very expert on, and that’s the role of women, and particularly in journalism. And you’re one of the founders of a really significant group called the International Women’s Media Foundation, which has done an awful lot for women around the world; you’ve devoted a lot of energy to it. And I just want to ask you a personal question about your own trajectory, because I remember you were, when you started, you were working with the Today Show and you were covering Jimmy Carter. And I remember you did some very important, investigative pieces. And I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I gather the response from New York was more about your appearance than the substance of your investigative report [laughter].

Woodruff: Oh my gosh. Wait a minute, you’re not telling me there’s a double standard for women, are you?

Scheer: Well, I just remember you being very ticked off—that it had something to do with, did you do your hair that morning, rather than, you know, you had spent weeks investigating a story of great substance. So you are a pioneer in this business, and there’s a tendency to think oh, well, those problems are solved. But you know, the whole reason you devoted energy to the International Women’s Media Foundation, certainly internationally, women suffer a lot when they function as journalists. And you award Courage Awards towards that. But the situation in the United States also remains a very serious one, no?

Woodruff: Well, it does. I mean, we’ve made incredible progress, because sure, there are so many more women now as reporters, and more women editors, women producers; I mean, our executive producer at the PBS NewsHour is a woman, an amazing journalist, Sarah Just. Our former executive producer was another amazing woman journalist, Linda Winslow. So we have a history of prominent women, and of course the extraordinary late Gwen Ifill, who was my co-anchor and close, close friend, who passed away last November. I mean, I’ve been so fortunate to work with some of the most, just extraordinary women journalists anywhere. But the point you’re getting at, Bob, is that the standards for women are different, and yes we’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go. And I can’t disagree with that. I mean, I’m so thrilled when I pick up the newspaper and I see female bylines, much more than I used to. And I know, certainly when you turn on the television and you watch television news, you see more women reporters covering just about everything from war—and by the way, I’ve decided more of our correspondents covering our war zones are women than men. At least, it seems that way to me; that may not be completely accurate. But we still don’t have enough women in positions of leadership: women doing the hiring, women deciding on story coverage, women, frankly, you know, calling the shots. And that’s what we need more of: we need more women newspaper editors, executive producers, such as the one we have at the NewsHour. And why do we need it? Because we in the media need to reflect the whole country; more than half the country is women. It’s not that women are going to cover the news so differently, it’s just that we, I think, bring a perspective and a history and a sensibility and, frankly, a set of life experiences that’s different. And that ought to be respected and reflected.

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