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Gwen Ifill on Politics, Policy & Reality: What’s Really Going on in Washington


As a political correspondent, she’s covered seven presidential campaigns but prefers talking with voters instead of the candidates. She was once considered “the political angel of death” for being assigned to cover candidates who ended up on the losing side. She’s been spoofed by Saturday Night Live, where entertainer Queen Latifah portrayed her in a debate parody skit.

Renowned journalist Gwen Ifill delivered a lively and humorous Annenberg Lecture in December on her experiences as a political journalist, rising from intern at the Boston Herald-American to become political correspondent for The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC, and currently is managing editor and moderator of PBS’s Washington Week and senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. She also is the author of the book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

As she began her talk, Ifill agreed that politics, policy, and reality are three words you don’t often see together, but that she would do her best to make sense of the apparent disconnect. She then launched into a discussion of the fiscal cliff looming at the end of 2012, noting that the smell of gridlock in the air at the time of her talk [was] overwhelming.

“There is a game of chicken playing out on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. We’ve been tiptoeing up to this fiscal cliff since the moment the election ended. Some would say we were tiptoeing up for some time, but nobody was noticing.

“This is the yearly showdown that lawmakers set up for themselves. We’ve seen these gauntlets thrown, the ultimatums issued and the dire warnings. It’s hard to know what to take seriously, [so we’re] looking for any kinds of signs we can find.”

As someone who says she is often exasperated by these high-noon moments, which roll around like clockwork, she assured the audience that her upcoming holiday would not be ruined by these people, even if it came down to a “classic Washington pre-holiday midnight deal.”

But she also admitted that times like this can provide a handy way to understand why things do and do not happen in Washington: the politics, the policy, and the reality.

“Moments like this, on the heels of years like this, remind me why I love what I do, because I get to explain.”

In the end, she says, the way in which the fiscal cliff issue sorts itself out will tell us a lot about the quality of the people we have chosen to lead us, but the media has to be alert to nuance.

Ifill next addressed the 2012 elections, noting that it was an election that told us much about America. In her exhaustive travels across the country covering the campaigns, she spent time trying to make sense of this country – not just the choices people have, but also what our nation is thinking.

“I like to talk with voters. They are the ones who really get to decide what happens on Election Day. They almost always have more interesting things to say than the candidates.

“The questions I ask voters today are very similar to those I asked early in my career: Which candidate speaks to your hopes [or] your fears? How optimistic are you about your family’s future [or] about its present? Have you ever voted for different parties in successive elections, and what motivated you to change? How much faith do you invest in government to improve your life or make it worse? These are the types of questions that endure from cycle to cycle.”

Ifill remarked on the vast differences between President Obama and former Governor Romney and wondered why the choice between the two candidates was so difficult for many.

“I kept asking myself, ‘who is this elusive undecided voter?’ I was convinced they did not exist. In the end, it came down to the answer to a basic question: Who will be best for me?”

The remainder of Ifill’s talk focused on her reflections of the 2012 presidential and vice presidential debates and her own experiences moderating the 2004 and 2008 vice presidential debates.

“One thing I didn’t predict was that the 2012 debates would matter. For many voters, the debates served to focus the mind. They empowered viewers to decide for themselves and were an important part of the political diet this year, serving both to confirm impressions and alter perceptions.”

At the same time, she admitted that in the age of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, the debates are not the last, best chance for candidates to define themselves... Saturday Night Live is, she joked. (Ifill’s role as debate moderator was famously spoofed on the program by Queen Latifah.)

At the end of the day, Ifill says she loves politics, and even loves politicians. She continues to firmly believe that serious journalism from organizations like Public Broadcasting still matters -- that telling the story well and in as many was as they can, still matters.

“When it comes to watching democracy in action, I never tire of telling the story. I just want to dig deeper. I discovered early in my career that understanding politics was a useful way of understanding the world: whether our children get educated, where we choose to live, how healthy we get to be, who we get to know … it all boils down to politics.”

The Annenberg Lecture, a combination of the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Distinguished Lecture in Communication, established in 1992 by Annenberg alumni, and the Leonore Annenberg Lecture in Public Service and Global Understanding, established in 2006 by the office of the President of the University of Pennsylvania, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the Institute for Public Service of the Annenberg School for Communication, honors the contributions of Ambassadors Walter and Lenore Annenberg to the nation and the world.

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