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October 29, 2018

Getting It Right

An in-depth discussion with veteran reporter Judy Woodruff on politics, public service, and presenting the facts.

John Griffiths
  • PBS
  • PBS

With one of the most volatile midterm U.S. elections in decades approaching like a hurricane, viewers might be comforted to know that Judy Woodruff—the news icon for people who like their news straight, without constant "Breaking News" graphics—is here to help 'em navigate the proverbial winds and choppy waves.

"Work is pretty nonstop these days for all of us in journalism in Washington covering the political scene," says the PBS NewsHour anchor, 72, in her light Tulsa, Oklahoma drawl—which, as fans know, resonates with a watchful gravitas.

What's keeping Woodruff, who's also the nightly NewsHour's managing editor, and her staff busy isn't just the coming "referendum" on President Trump. Lots of other issues are burning, she notes. "You've got health care, the economy, immigration, the Supreme Court."

The newshound, promoting her show's beefed-up political coverage ahead of Tuesday, November 6, is suddenly on a roll.

"Do the Republicans lose the House? If the Democrats pick up the House, what are they going to do regarding Donald Trump? Are they going to hold hearings? Is somebody going to start an impeachment process? A lot of Democrats think that's a terrible idea, but some of them want to do it—a minority. Will there be investigations into (the president's) personal finances? Then, of course, there's the Russia investigation still going on."

She takes a breath, tilts her head and lifts a brow. "So, you put all that together, and it's going to be riveting right-up-through."

Woodruff, more instructive than excited, mixes the poise and subtle confidence of a Washington powerhouse with the listening power of a caring detective. She also just enjoys connecting.

Sitting at a round table in an all-beige ballroom that's been closed off for a one-on-one chat, she lets what was set as a 15-minute chat turn into a fairly leisurely and earnest talk about NewsHour's coverage goals, her early days as the rare woman covering D.C., her newsie BFF and her joy as a first-time grandmother.

She also gives tips on how to counter reality's boogeyman, fake news.

You grew up an army brat. Did that teach you to land and learn on your feet?

I learned how to meet people and try to land on my feet with short notice. I was born in Tulsa, moved to Germany at the age of five, came back to the U.S. and lived on bases with my parents in Missorui, New Jersey, then back to Oklahoma, then Taiwan, North Carolina and then Georgia.

When and how did you get into journalism?

Not until I was out of college. I went from studying at math (at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina) to political science (Duke University) to being interested in politics in Washington.

I spent two summers as an intern on Capitol Hill (for Georgia Representative Robert Grier Stephens, Jr.) and I planned to stay in D.C. after graduating and work in government. But this was in the late 1960s, and the women on the Hill said, "Be careful about coming back to D.C.—women are still not treated seriously here."


So, I said to my professors, "What am I gonna do?" And one of suggested covering politics. It was like a lightbulb went off. From then on, I focused on becoming a reporter. I went to Atlanta—my parents were in Georgia—and I interviewed with three news directors at three different TV stations. I thought, "Well, I can't get into print because I don't have any clips!"

I had never even written for the school newspaper. So, out of college, I got hired as a newsroom secretary. Even as a secretary, watching the reporters and producers at work, I knew this is what I want to do.

Soon enough, you rose to on-air reporter.

Yes, and I was so lucky because I happened to cover a man who was elected Georgia governor and then went on to run for president and was elected (Jimmy Carter). Then NBC hired me—I argued that I knew the people around Carter—and came to Washington to cover the White House and stayed.

In my career, I've been at NBC, PBS, CNN and then PBS again with NewsHour. I'm covering my 7th president now!

How big of a story is Donald Trump to your viewers?

I get a lot of mail and tweets about the president and our coverage of the president. I think he's on a lot people's minds right now because of the nature of his presidency—he's injected himself into virtually every aspect of our public lives. So they're focused on him—through different lenses, as you can imagine.

Some people write in because they very much dislike him and what he's saying, and there are others who write who are huge fans of the president. And then there are people who are in the middle—but the middle has become quieter I would say for the last year.

The ones who comment tend to have strong views—about immigration, the Russia investigation, trade policy and tariffs the president has recently imposed. Or North Korea or just his meeting with Vladimir Putin.

With Twitter bots, fake news sites and Facebook's issues with deceptive ads, do you have any tips on how people can spot purposely misleading information?

It's a great question. I think we're in an environment now where people have much more responsibility to do their own credibility test. So, yes, look at the story. Who wrote it? What's the news organization? It may not be a name you recognize, but is it AP, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or is something that you've never heard of before?

Look at the URL, the top and bottom of the page—does it all look legitimate? I know Facebook is taking steps to clean up (the mess) they have, and we're still watching that unfold. But people have to be more careful consumers—reading carefully, not assuming everything you hear on the radio, see on television, see online or on social media is true.

We don't hear much about the perpetrators of all this misinformation? Is it conspiracy theorists who are living in a dream world, is it powerful people with dark money or . . . ?

Well, I don't know what the percentage is, but some of these false stories are deliberately pushed by people who don't want the facts out, and I think we have to be on the look out for that.

Look, sometimes reporters make mistakes, they get something wrong in a story, a source tells them something that doesn't bear out. But by and large, when you're reading something that is genuinely false, it's been stirred up by people who have an agenda.

What do you think of all the pundits on TV?

I do worry that we've gotten off on a tangent right now where so much of news is opionion. We need to go back to basics. I mean, opinion's welcome, but if we don't have a basic set of facts that we agree are facts, how are we ever going to come together as a country?

I do feel good that young people today aren't just satisfied with somebody's account—they'll go to the source material that's referenced. If a story notes a report, they'll find the report and read it.

Are there some unsung stories you're passionate about that you'd like to see get more coverage?

Politics is in my blood, but beyond that I would say that I'm passionate about stories about the human condition, like these painful immigrations stories where we've seen families separated.

I think NewsHour has covered some wonderful education stories about how kids who come from underprivileged backgrounds are getting exposed to more educational opportunities than they ever were before, thanks to so many different programs.

I love that we get to do science, medicine and health stories that can get overlooked. For the big picture, I feel so strongly that we have to continue to cover the entirety of America. I like to think we're holding up a mirror every day to the whole country, trying to reflect what's going on everywhere.

That makes viewers feel respected. People want to be known.

Exactly. And I'll be honest, it's a challenge for us to get out into communities and cities and towns around the country. But we think it's really important to get to the heart of the country—the South, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest. There's much more going on in this country and the entire world than what's happening in Washington, New York and L.A.

Who are your comrades in arms when it comes to pushing for better journalism?

Well, Andrea Mitchell and I are very close friends. I admire her. We're close buddies. She's the Godmother to our daughter (Lauren Hunt, 29. Woodruff and her husband, Bloomberg political columnist Al Hunt, also sons Ben, 31, and Jeffrey, 36, who suffers from spina bifida and hydrocephalus and requires round-the-clock care).

Any interest in segueing into politics?

Haha. Uh, nooo. Not at all. I'm a journalist through-and-through, ever since I landed in that newsroom as I said back in 1968, when I was taking dictation for the news director and cleaning the film and watching the reporters working the phone.

I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have a job where, every day, I get to survey the landscape of what's going on and try to understand, "Okay, what really matters here? What do the American people need to know from all of these things happening? And how can we bring light to it all?"

I can't imagine doing anything else.

What about a book?

One of these days I'll write a book. But it's not time yet. (Pause) But I do want to say something on behalf of the people in public service: The vast majority of the people I know who go into government go in for the right reasons. They want to help the American people, they want to make this a better place to live.

It pains me to hear comments like "Well, it's a place of jerks and they're lazy and they don't care about us." That's not my experience. There are really some fine people wanting to help their fellow citizens, and they deserve to be celebrated.

Okay, what do you do for fun when you're not tracking the news?

I do have a personal life! I have family and we (took) some days off in the month of August. I have a beautiful grandson—his name is Kai—who just started crawling recently. So we're celebrating that. That brings me great joy.

Is this your first grandkid?

He is our first. And we're lucky because we get to see him pretty often. But beyond that, any precious time I have, I try to spend with my beloved husband Al Hunt. Only two journalists can possibly understand the crazy ups and downs of this business, and we both love it. For me, it's about family and being with friends. The simple things.

For Kai's sake, you probably want to get the story straighter than ever.

That's right. This sounds corny, but I wanna make sure that my children and my grandchildren have access to a free press that brings them news and information from all around that is unfiltered and unrestricted in any way by the government. We have to keep fighting in this country for the free press—what we have there is pretty special and extraordinary.

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