Gwen Ifill talks on bringing Washington Week to St. Petersburg and the subtle departure of Jim Lehrer
LOS ANGELES -- She's sitting in a quiet corner of the Beverly Hilton Hotel Sunday, minutes after telling a roomful of journalists how PBS will offer its first all-female anchor team to cover the big political conventions and presidential contest, teaming with pal Judy Woodruff in their first election without longtime anchor Jim Lehrer.
But NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill's mind is on Florida and St. Petersburg, where her Washington Week show will tape the Friday before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, taking over the Palladium Theatre Aug. 24 for a look at the issues facing the GOP and the state.
"It's easy for (national political reporters) to be lazy in Florida," Ifill said. "You walk into a room, and a story leaps out at you. But it might not be the right story. It might not be accurate...You don't have to do a full-on investigative project in Wauchula. But you can hear the voices of those people that normally don't get talked to and find a way to make them part of the discussion."
That's the goal, in part, of PBS' convention coverage, which will find Ifill and Woodruff covering the GOP convention in Tampa from the PBS Skybox at the Tampa Convention Center, devoting three hours of live coverage each night of the gathering from Aug. 27 to 30, along with a livestream online video platform, NewsHour AllHours, devoted to 24/7 reporting and analysis.
It's quite a slate of reporting for a process the broadcast networks have traditionally shrugged off as big-name publicity exercises, offering just an hour of primetime time coverage each day of each gathering.
"Well, of course (the political parties) are going to make it a publicity show, but we're going to make it something more," Ifill said. "Here we have a Republican convention in Tampa, where health care is a huge issue and Republicans don't like the solution the president (developed)...How does that discussion gets inside the convention hall? There's a huge Tea Party presence in Florida; I want to know how they'll be represented on the floor."
Most notably, this will be Ifill and Woodruff's first convention without the guiding hand of longtime anchor Jim Lehrer, who announced in mid-2011 he would step down as a regular anchor at PBS' flagship evening newscast The NewsHour. Ifill said he hasn't appeared on the show since Dec. 30.
"He pulled off the quietest, cleverest transition ever," said Ifill, noting that the show previously had always operated a bit by asking itself WWJD; What Would Jim Do? "It took a minute before people realized he was not there anymore."
Now, the coverage will be led by two women for the first time; the only all-female elections anchor team on TV. During PBS' press conference on its political coverage at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour Sunday, the session nearly ended before a journalist noticed that all the anchors featured onstage -- Ifill, Woodruff, Frontline's Raney Aronson and Maria Hinojosa of Need to Know -- were female.
"The good news, is that we didn't plan it that way," Ifill said. "The Judy and me thing...it seems silly to make it about 'Oh, look at the women together.' Between to two of us,we've covered 16 or 17 campaigns...I can finish Judy's sentences on how we're supposed to be doing this job, which works really well."
The anchor doesn't yet know which journalists will be featured in the Washington Week episode to be taped in St. Petersburg. And she's not sure how much of the reporting anyone does during the RNC will move outside the convention halls, because it the political world is so focused on that small space during that time.
But she is confident that Florida's shifting demographics and perennial swing state status makes it the perfect backdrop for an important step in the presidential election process.
"Florida's almost become a cliche as a swing state...it's really so much more complicated than we've given it credit for," she said. "It's about diversity in a more complicated way; diversity of ambition and hope and whether change is a good thing or bad thing. And you can capture it all in Florida. If you pay attention."