ST. PETERSBURG — Judy Woodruff, a pioneer of political reporting in the 1970s when few women were accepted in the industry, received the Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Saturday evening at the Poynter Institute’s Bowtie Ball. The ball is named for the trademark ties favored by Nelson Poynter, who founded the nonprofit journalism institute that owns the Tampa Bay Times.
Woodruff spent 40 years reporting national politics for NBC, CNN and PBS and has covered seven presidential administrations. Now the anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, she spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the changes she’s seen over the course of her career. This interview has been condensed.
You’re being honored with Poynter’s Medal for Lifetime Achievement. What story from your career has impacted you more than any other?
There are a number of moments in my career that have shaped who I am as a journalist. Part of it was covering segregation or the residual segregation in the South covering Atlanta in the early 1970s when there was still redlining, when minorities were still being directed not to live in certain public housing. Covering presidential politics, being there the night in 2000 on-set at CNN, we kept waiting for the election to be decided. Florida results didn’t come in until very, very late and just watching the American political system being challenged to the core. Because we’re used to counting the numbers, seeing who’s won. That night we were reminded that the system doesn’t always work. We had to wait another 37 days, the election went to court, the Supreme Court ended up calling the election. I would say for me that was a formative moment. Another moment was certainly covering the day Ronald Reagan was shot. I had been covering the White House for five years, he had just been inaugurated. He went to make a speech, and I’m standing 20 feet away when he’s shot by John Hinckley. I went on to report that day for NBC, but that for me was a reminder of how things can change in an instant.
Right now the news cycle can feel like it’s moving so fast, it can be difficult to keep up. What do you see as the most important story in national politics right now?
The most important story I would say right now that we are covering is understanding our new president and understanding how he wields power and how he communicates with the American people. We’ve never seen a president who operates as he does in talking directly to the American people through Twitter, in being as critical as he is of the news media, and frankly, being very critical of people in his own political party. Yes, there are important issues that we’re covering. It’s the economy, it’s national security, but as a story right now, understanding the presidency of Donald Trump is important.
What stories are being underreported?
I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of covering people in the shadows of life in this country. In the bubble of Washington and New York, we so often focus on Washington and what’s happening on the coasts. And we saw this in the election result. There are a lot of people in this country who feel left out, who feel they are not listened to, and I think we in the media have to be sure we’re always looking for them and listening to them.
Do you think the cutbacks to local media have had an impact on that?
Absolutely. I mourn the loss of so many newspapers around this country, so many local news reporters. Somebody showed me the other day the statistics on the number of state capitols around this country that now have hardly any reporters showing up to cover what’s going on in that state legislature, and the American people are without information. They are without knowledge because there aren’t as many reporters as there used to be. That’s criminal to me. I can’t do anything about it as one person, but I talk about it wherever I go. I try to tell the American people, "Hey, did you know we’ve lost 10,000 reporters over the last 12 years around this country?"And yes, there are more people working online, and that’s good, but we don’t have the kind of journalism going on at the local level that we used to.
The term fake news seems like it’s been hijacked and is also applied to accurate reporting that some readers or politicians just don’t agree with. Did you experience this pushback in your early years in national politics or is this a phenomenon of the digital age?
I’ve never seen anything like what we see today. I’ve certainly always been subject to criticism. All reporters are. You shouldn’t go into journalism if you want to win a popularity contest. If you’re doing your job, there are always going to be people who criticize your reporting. But we’ve never been at a place like we are today where there’s practically an entire industry around criticizing the media and holding the mainstream media up as suspect and out to destroy an entire political philosophy in this country. I think the term "fake news" has done a lot of damage to the media. I don’t like to use the term myself because it’s not true. What we do at the Newshour, what most people I know in journalism do, is not fake news.
You’ve talked about the challenges you faced breaking into the industry at a time when few women were given a chance. With all your success and the respect you’ve earned through your career, do you still face sexism?
I would say all women are seen differently than men. It’s the way our society works. I wouldn’t say I experience difference in gender today simply by virtue of the fact I’m now the anchor and managing editor of a major national news program. But having said that, I would say women in every profession, including journalism, still have to fight some stereotypes, and I think it’s the reason you don’t see as many women in management as I would like. Women have made enormous strides when it comes to reporting and being behind the camera and on camera in broadcast, reporting and editing in print journalism, but there still aren’t enough making decisions, calling the shots, doing the hiring, figuring out what stories we’re going to cover. That’s when we know that we have arrived, and we’re still not there yet. But it’s getting better. But look at what we’re dealing with right now as a country in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein stories.
Is it encouraging to you that industries and individuals are taking the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by Harvey Weinstein seriously, or is it just a reminder we still have so far to go?
It’s encouraging to me that it’s getting attention. First of all, we’ve come a long way. Things are not as bad as they were when I started out. They are better, but there’s still a big problem. The fact we are talking about it, that women feel they can be open, that is a huge step forward. But you know what? We have to keep talking about it. We have a tendency in our society, thanks to the way the news changes every day, to change the subject, and we’ll be on to something else. We have to keep talking about this. Or else people are going to forget and we’re going to slide back to where we were.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.