Even fire trucks and an ambulance call couldn't stop Gwen Ifill from bringing PBS' Washington Week to St. Pete
ST. PETERSBURG — So much for the idea that PBS is a sedate kind of TV broadcaster.
Even before host Gwen Ifill took the stage at the Palladium Theater Friday to lead a special taping of her PBS news analysis show Washington Week, two sets of emergency workers already had left the building.
Smoke from a malfunctioning elevator brought one set of firefighters, while a man who swooned in the heat while waiting to enter the building required an ambulance, minutes later.
But the early commotion didn’t stop the show — afterwards, Ifill admitted she didn’t even know paramedics had been there — which brought the public television channel’s politics show to town in the first big media event heralding the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Next week, Ifill will make history on PBS, joining co-anchor Judy Woodruff as the first all-female team to lead convention coverage for a major TV network. But Ifill didn't talk about that or her feelings over not being asked to reprise her roles in 2004 and 2008 as moderator for the vice presidential debates -- an oversight which has brought criticism over a lack of ethnic diversity among the chosen hosts.
But today, more than 800 people filled the aging venue to watch Ifill talk over the day’s political news with a panel of expert political reporters: Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Beth Reinhard of National Journal, Amy Walter of ABC News and John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News.
Welcomed with a blast of music as organist Paul Dixon played the show’s theme, Ifill was a warm and charismatic presence — even when a set of technical glitches delayed parts of the show.
Once the conversation started, Ifill proved an able, unflappable host, questioning her panel on everything from Florida’s importance in the coming election to the fruitless effort by Republican leaders to push Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin out of his race after his comments on “legitimate rape.”
“Conventions are usually made-for-television events,” said Dickerson, noting how Akin pushed the GOP to spend a week talking abortion and the definition of rape instead of talking up the Tampa convention. “But this is a made-for-TV disaster.”
After recording the first half-hour show — which aired on Tampa PBS station WEDU-Ch. 3 Friday and will be rebroadcast at 11:30 a.m. Sunday — Ifill and her panel took questions from the audience for a special 30-minute show aired on WEDU and placed online today. (See it by clicking here after Saturday morning)
The subjects covered a wide range, from one person who asked how politicians can insist the country’s budget deficit could be cut without raising taxes to another who asked why candidates don’t pay a heavier price for airing ads with false charges.
Many questions came down to a simpler plea that the panel never directly addressed: Why can’t journalists change the country’s political debate to important questions, even when both party’s campaigns avoid them?
Such questions -- along with more direct queries about their stances on the country's ongoing wars -- the assembled journalists struggled to answer, because they were reporters whose jobs prevent them from expressing opinions on the political issues they are covering. So they can only comfortably trade feelings on political strategy and tactics, which dominated Friday's conversation.
Walter noted that politicians sometimes count on swaying uncommitted, uninformed voters with misleading ads — the very opposite of the engaged, politically aware people gathered at the Palladium to watch the show taping.
“Nobody here is normal,” she said, drawing laughs. “Normal people don’t sit around and talk politics for this amount of time on a Friday night.”