For Female Journalists, Another Significant ‘First’ This Election Season On PBS

By Gail Shister 

When CNN’s Candy Crowley on Monday was named moderator for one of the Presidential debates, it drew headlines. Breaking a 20-year dry spell for women will do that.

So why the underwhelming response, relatively speaking, to PBS’s Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff — the first all-female team to spearhead a network’s convention coverage in news broadcast history?

Moreover, PBS didn’t even mention that fact when it announced the pairing in late June. It took another month before it came up during a PBS panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Ifill and Woodruff, both respected veterans of “PBS NewsHour,” insist their gender-making distinction is not a big deal.

“I think it matters a little; it doesn’t matter a lot,” says Woodruff, 65, whose first convention was in 1976 as a newbie NBC correspondent. “We’re not there because we’re women. We’re there because we love to cover politics and we’ve been doing it a long time.

“We’re not going to go on the air and say, ‘Aha, now is your chance to see two women on the convention.’ If others want to point it out, I’m very comfortable with it.”

Woodruff and Ifill will anchor from 8 to 11 each night from the Republican event, Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, followed by the Democratic gathering, Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte, N.C.

Ifill, 56, is no stranger to ‘firsts.’ As moderator of “Washington Week in Review” since 1999, she is the first female, and first person of color, to hold the position.

“It’s not important that we’re women,” she says of the historic convention partnership. “It’s important as a sign that ‘NewsHour’ is evolving, with the most experienced people doing the best job. Since Jim [Lehrer] went ‘stage right,’ as it were, Judy and I have been anchoring so much. Between us, we’ve covered something like 16 campaigns.

“The fact that we’re both women is almost incidental.”

According to Ifill, there was “no real discussion” within PBS about she and Woodruff getting the anchor plum. “There was no question it would be Judy and me. It just evolved naturally.”

The long-held theory that a male anchor brings some kind of ‘gravitas’ to the party “was true in 1972, but not anymore,” says Ifill. The mindset remains prevalent in local news, however, she adds.

“In local news, the assumption is that a male and female co-anchor connects with viewers. We don’t do secret tests to see if Judy and I can connect with our audiences.”

That said, Woodruff concedes that women “are used to being singled out because we’re women. Sometimes it’s in a negative, or shall we say less than flattering way, because women may be judged by some different standard.

“Gwen and I have been doing this so long, I don’t think that will be the way people judge us.”

Or, as Ifill puts it: “The true accomplishment will be when we stop making ‘firsts.’”