Judy Woodruff confirmed this past Friday that her final broadcast as PBS NewsHour anchor is Friday, December 30, which will mark the end of an era at the public broadcaster.
A trailblazer in the TV news business, Woodruff’s coverage of U.S. politics goes back to 1972 when she was a reporter for WAGA, the CBS (now Fox) affiliate in Atlanta. She transitioned to the national level a few years later, covering national politics and the White House for NBC News in the 1970s and early ’80s.
Woodruff jumped from NBC to PBS in 1983, spending a decade at the public broadcaster as chief Washington correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. She also anchored Frontline with Judy Woodruff from 1984-1990.
Woodruff made another move in 1993, heading to cable for the first time as anchor and senior correspondent for CNN. She spent 12 years at the network, co-anchoring Inside Politics with the late Bernard Shaw, who passed away in September at the age of 82.
Woodruff returned to PBS NewsHour in 2007, and in 2013, she and the late Gwen Ifill were named the first two women to co-anchor a national newscast. After Ifill’s death in 2016, Woodruff was named sole anchor.
NewsHour viewers will no longer see Woodruff on a nightly basis after Dec. 30, but she isn’t leaving the newscast entirely. Woodruff says she will devote 2023 and 2024 to a national reporting project for NewsHour entitled, Judy Woodruff Presents: America at a Crossroads.
We spoke with Woodruff Monday morning about what factored into her decision to step down as PBS NewsHour anchor, next steps, changes in how politics is being covered and what she’ll miss most about the daily grind at NewsHour.
TVNewser: Why leave the anchor desk now? What factored into your decision?
Woodruff: I have been at the NewsHour a long time. I was there for 10 years, and then I took a little break, if you will, to work at CNN for 12 years. Then, I came back to the NewsHour in 2007. So I’ve been back almost 16 years. When you add it all up, and I look at what incredible experiences I’ve been so fortunate to have, and I looked at the calendar, 2022, I thought, “midterm election, this is the right time.” You just kind of feel it in your bones that this is the right time.
I also frankly wanted to basically stop anchoring while I still had the enthusiasm and the energy to do other projects, which then leads to what I’m going to be working on.
Yes, tell us about your next project.
What I would love to do is understand where Americans are right now as we head into this next consequential presidential election. Every one of them is consequential, it seems to me this one particularly so because of the political turmoil and political divisions we’ve been experiencing the last several years.
I think everybody agrees that we’re kind of an inflection point. I don’t want to overstate that. I think we, as Americans, we certainly recognize how divided we are. There are families where family members can’t speak to one another, neighbors who don’t talk to one another. It’s just gotten to a point where people are frustrated. How did this come about? Why are we here? What I would love to do is travel around the country talk to ordinary Americans about – what do they think about this, and how do they think we got here? And most importantly, how do we get through it? How do we find a way to a place where now that we’re all going to agree, but where we can at least have civil conversations and find a way to think about solving the country’s biggest problems without screaming at each other or making threatening noises.
I just relish the opportunity to talk to people in the middle of the country and all across the country, but also to talk to experts, people who’ve thought a lot about this, written about it, including economists. I would love to talk to faith leaders, people who have looked at education, “how does education play into this?” There’s there’s so many strands of it – young people, older people. It’s a great, big country, and a lot of questions. Anything I can do to help people think about this, I would love to do.
I know you’re not retiring, but do you have any idea how often we’ll see you back on-air contributing to the newscast?
We tentatively talked about every other week to begin with. I hope this starts in February, if I can get my act together. It’s possible that could slide a little bit, but as you know very well, we’re already into the ‘24 [campaign] cycle, and so I don’t want to wait too long, but a lot will depend on how quickly I can get my act together after I stop anchoring at the end of December. I do want to take a little bit of time off at the first part of January, but beyond that, I’m ready to jump in.
Our goal is to start in February and to be every other week. At some point, we’ll go to, I hope, once a week, and hear from people around the country, but also have conversations with people who have given this a lot of thought.
As anchor, what’s your favorite or most memorable edition of PBS NewsHour?
One of the ones that I think about—because I have a picture of it in my office and at home as well—is at the end of the 2016 convention. It was at the end of both conventions, in fact, the Democrats and the Republicans — We high fived at the end, and people took pictures of it. It was just kind of a zenith moment of our working together, both Gwen and me and for the NewsHour because both of us love politics. She certainly loved it, I love it, and we were able in covering that convention. I don’t remember what we did at the end of the 2012 convention, but we must have done something celebratory.
We both love politics, and politics was certainly in her DNA, it’s still in mine. It’s hard to come up with a time that was more meaningful for me than just sort of, frankly living inside the political stew, if you will, of 2016, 2012 and to be at those conventions and trying to do the best job we could of reporting for the NewsHour.
There were so many other nights and so many other days covering other stories. We lost Gwen way too early, as you know.
You worked closely with the legendary late journalists Gwen Ifill and Bernard Shaw. What are some similarities and differences between the two as journalists and as people?
Both of them were consummate journalists. They both were absolutely committed to the craft, they both were not only extraordinarily respected, but every fiber of their body was about integrity and getting the story right. They both had a passion for the work that they did. Frankly, I learned so much from both.
They both had very different backgrounds. Gwen was the daughter of a minister and traveled around a lot when she was growing up. Bernie from Illinois, and all of his Chicago connections. They came up in different ways, he was in television for most of his career and Gwen started at print, and then made the move to television.
They both were not only great journalists, but also extraordinary human beings. They both had a humanity about them. They cared about people that came through and everything they did. Bernie and I spent eight years as co-anchors at CNN, and he had this sort of essence of getting to the heart of the story. Whenever he did an interview, it was all about, “I want to I don’t want to waste time here,” I want to get to what’s important. I learned so much from him and we became very close friends. I’m still reeling from his passing, which was not too long ago.
And Gwen, my goodness, a shooting star from the time she started in journalism. They were both pioneers. Gwen was this “supernova,” I called her. She was a magnet for younger journalists, younger women, especially. Sometimes she called herself “mother hen,” and she was always looking out for younger journalists, making sure that particularly younger journalists of color knew that she was there for them to provide advice and wanted to do anything she could to make sure that there was always going to be the next step on the ladder up.
Bernie, by the way, was the same. He would often reach out. He was somewhat different generation, coming along at a time when there were very few people of color, Black Americans in journalism. I know when CBS hired him back in the early ’70s, he talked about how it was a very tough time. He was a rare one. For Gwen, the same thing, and she had that terrible experience when she was first hired for a newspaper in Boston.
I was so blessed to work with both, and I learned so much from each one of them.
You have been covering politics for a while now. How has political coverage changed over the years, in good ways and in not so good ways?
How much time do we have? (laughing) Obviously, covering politics has changed enormously. The number of outlets is now limitless. It used to be three networks and a whole lot of great newspapers. Today, it’s very different, and the speed with which news is covered, the speed with which journalists are expected to understand the story and get it out there has become almost humanly impossible. You’re supposed to understand the story and get it right, and get it accurate and put it in context, and you’re supposed to do that instantly.
When I see so many accomplished reporters around who cover politics, I marvel at the ability of so many of them to be really good at what they do. I’m so proud of my team at the NewsHour. We’ve got several journalists, correspondents and producers who focus all the time on politics, and I’m just so proud of how they do it, because they have to file not just for the nightly program, but also online all the time. What they know even without my telling them to do this, is that it’s much more important to get it right than to get it first. It’s great to have it first, great to break the story, but what matters more than anything is getting it right and adding any context that you can whenever you can.
What do you think you’ll miss the most and least about being on NewsHour each night?
I certainly will miss my incredible WETA studio crew — seeing them every evening from about 5:30 until after 7 p.m. They are just an incredible bunch of people who work for WETA, which is the public station for Washington; they are the producing station for the NewsHour. They’re incredible, and I will still see them, but it won’t be as often, and I’ll miss them a whole lot. So that’s the thing I’ll miss the most.
The thing I’m going to like the most is being able to watch the NewsHour from home or occasionally on the road, that I’ll be able to enjoy the whole thing as a viewer. That’ll be a big plus.
I think the project I’m undertaking is going to take up a lot of time. I don’t expect to be sitting around a whole lot. But what I will have is more flexibility. I’ll be able to maybe do a little more traveling, spend more time with my grandson who lives here in Washington, and see friends who I haven’t been able to see nearly often enough. So, that I will very muh look forward to.