Gwen Ifill at Opening General Session

Gwen Ifill of PBS’s Washington Week and Jim Lehrer’s The NewsHour was the keynote speaker at last night’s opening session. She started out to cheering when she revealed, “Once upon a time, I wanted to be a librarian.” She said she learned to love reading at the library, and it was a place to meet boys and gossip with her girlfriends. She discussed how researchers at the NewsHour help her look good by prepping her for each day’s unexpected topics.
She then reflected on how journalism is seeing highs and lows right now.
The good: Journalists are in all parts of the world reporting on international events. Recent investigations have exposed secret prisons and wiretapping programs. Sept. 11 has renewed interest in government, and people want to now how government works, and what happens when it doesn’t work.
The bad: Journalists are under attack. Sometimes it’s reasonable and sometimes it’s not. She mentioned the U.S. Justice Department seeking the late columnist Jack Anderson’s papers, and the Wen Ho Lee case, where news organizations settled because they feared the courts would force them to reveal confidential sources.
Also, the proliferation of news outlets has led to an increase in “infotainment” style news. People know who TomKat’s baby is, but they don’t know what’s going on in Darfur. This development puts some responsibility back on the audience. “You have to take greater responsibility to get the news you need.”
Gwen also said that many of the politicians she’s met are “honorable people” trying to do good public service. The media does not do a good job of showing this, because it’s not usually news when people do the right thing.
Nevertheless, Gwen said she remains idealistic. “Are we under fire? Probably. And I think that’s a good thing. How else are we to be held accountable?”
Afterwards, Gwen took questions from the audience. On PBS’s independence, she said she feels like it is solid. The wall between journalism and underwriting has not been punctured. She also discussed her moderation of the vice presidential debate. She said she had to be very, very careful not to tell anyone what the questions were or what order she would ask them. (Jim Lehrer gave her that advice, she said.) She also said the audience knows when the candidates don’t answer the questions, as when Cheney and Edwards avoided her question on growing AIDS cases among heterosexual black women in America. Their non-answers speak for themselves, she said.
She spoke before a huge audience in the main ballroom, there were four giant video screens so everyone could see.

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