Gwen Ifill never lived in Philadelphia, but her emotional ties to the area are strong.
Her father, the Rev. O. Urcille Ifill Sr., one of the region's leading African American ministers in the 1980s, was pastor of A.M.E. Union Church at 16th and Jefferson Streets in Philadelphia from 1978 to 1988. Both he and his wife, Eleanor Husbands Ifill, are buried here.
Tonight, Ifill, 52, moderator of the PBS show
and senior correspondent for
The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer
, will return to Philadelphia to receive the 2008 WHYY Lifelong Learning Award at the Seventh Annual WHYY President's Dinner, a $600-a-plate fund-raiser. The award honors leadership and achievement in promoting learning opportunities.
Tomorrow, Ifill will host a segment of
from the University of Pennsylvania's Irvine Auditorium. (It is sold out.)
She paused last week to answer questions about herself and about the presidential campaign. What follows is an edited transcript of her remarks.
Why are you taking
on the road?
It's kind of an unparalleled opportunity to break out of the Beltway. When we're on the road, we talk to people in the audience, and this year, especially, I've been stunned at the degree of sophistication in the political questions. We thought we'd talk about all kinds of issues. Instead, we talk about almost exclusively the presidential campaign. And that's all our audiences want us to talk about. The interest is so high.
What do you make of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. [Barack Obama's former pastor, who has made controversial statements about race, religion and 9/11 attacks]?
I have to say that my stature as a preacher's kid has never come in handier than in the last several weeks. When this whole thing started, I think I can say I was one of the few reporters who had ever heard of Rev. Wright, who had ever heard him speak or had ever been to his church. Many black churches are activist pulpits, where speaking truth to power is part of what you did. My father, once upon a time back in the day, wore dashikis in the pulpit. I remember that very clearly.
But I also know that all black churches aren't like that, and where [Wright] began to lose people I know, churchgoers, is that he began to speak in a monolithic way about black people.
is what we all strive
to describe any single community as. Everybody doesn't think, feel, worship the same way. And that's where he started to run into some trouble, societally as well as politically. Politically, it seemed that by the time Barack Obama did what he did a couple of days ago [distancing himself from Wright], he had little choice left to him.
What about race in the presidential campaign as an overarching theme?
A: In our society, in our country, we have the hardest time talking about race. We're just really nervous about it. We don't have the words to use. Therefore, we'd prefer to avoid it entirely. But what Barack Obama's ascendancy demands is that we have some sort of mature conversation about it. And, you know, some days we do and some days we don't. I actually think that Hillary Clinton's gender demands the same thing, even though you hear less about it. We say we want change, but change is something that causes friction, and you've got to work your way through that friction to get to the other side and, theoretically, to a better side.
How has the campaign affected the standing of Hillary and Bill Clinton in the black community?
It wasn't that long ago that Hillary Clinton was leading among black voters. There was an immense well of affection and support among black voters for both Clintons, and that no longer exists. And not just because Barack Obama's black. It's not just because of race pride, because if that were the case, black voters would have immediately flocked to his side. Instead, there was a lot of hesitancy among black voters, so, yeah, it's something on some level, it's what the Clintons did, it's what the Clintons did not do, and it's what Barack Obama did and what he did not do. It has been remarkable. I would never have imagined that you would hear people like [U.S. Rep.] Jim Clyburn [D., S.C., the House Majority Whip and the highest-ranking African American in Congress] talking about what a split there is between the black community and the Clintons.
You don't like to talk about yourself, I take it, as a pioneer.
A: Well, here's the distinction: I don't go around and beat my chest and say, "Aren't I great?" But to the extent that people walk up to me and say, "My little girl sees you on television, and I can imagine she could be that," I'm proud to considered [a role model].
How about your Imus moment? [Shock jock Don Imus, who made headlines last year with a racial slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team, once referred to Ifill as "a cleaning lady."] Has he ever called and apologized?
I've never talked with him about it.
Would you want to?
No, not really. There's nothing to be gained, what, seven, eight years later, 10 years later. [Ifill says she didn't hear about the slur until years afterward.] I'm going to be giving the commencement speech at Rutgers [on May 21].
I'm really looking forward to because, to the extent that I spoke at all about the Imus situation, it was always about those girls.
When you bring
to a place like Philadelphia, do you try to ask questions that reflect the realities of life in this city?
Gun violence in Philadelphia has been one of
big issues. . . .
And isn't it interesting how little it came up. I mean, there was all this talk about guns and religion and clinging to guns in Pennsylvania. . . . You have this interesting thing that we should have these two breakthrough candidates, and urban issues are so little discussed.
Given the troubles in the news business, what does the future look like for minority journalists?
I think there is a lot of concern. I don't know that the concern is any keener among the black journalists I know than it is among journalists in general. I do know that we have a harder time getting into newsrooms, and even at its height, we weren't fully represented the way we ought to be, and so we're going to be the first ones out. It's a tough business for everybody; it's tougher, I think, for the reader and the viewer, because the real reason for diversity in newsrooms is not just to have black people sitting there or to have a black anchor on the air; it's to bring a sensibility to our coverage, which, through no fault of anyone's upbringing, is missing when you don't have a diverse group of people.
Q: What do you do when you're not reporting or moderating?
Well, I am working on this book now, which is frankly taking almost all of my waking hours when I'm not at work. The book is about an emerging generation of black politicians - in fact, when I'm in town, I'll probably talk to your mayor - including focusing on Barack Obama and [Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick and [Newark, N.J., Mayor] Corey Booker - and trying to talk about what we see happening here, and I think there is something fundamental shifting here, which is shifting before our eyes, that goes beyond Barack Obama. It's my first book, so it's terrifying. But when I'm not working all the time, I'm playing with my godchildren and going to movies and doing things normal people do.