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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   November 1999  issue

No Attitude Required   

Gwen Ifill debuts as moderator of " Washington Week in Review."


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


Watching the October 1 edition of "Washington Week in Review,"a friend told Gwen Ifill , was like going to a dinner party at her house. "That's what I wanted it to be,"Ifill says of the compliment, "conversational."
The night marked Ifill's debut as moderator of PBS ' 33-year-old political talk show, broadcast from WETA 's studios in Washington. The former political correspondent for NBC News will also serve as a senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,"reporting many of the stories she'll discuss with beat reporters each Friday night.
The combination of the two jobs is what sold Ifill, 44. She had turned the moderator post down once, shortly after and partly because of the criticized removal of Ken Bode in February. Moderator of the sane and civilized "Washington Week"for five years, Bode said he was told the show needed more attitude and edge, buzzwords he, and a multitude of outraged viewers, didn't want associated with "Washington Week"(see "Unplugged,"June).
But Ifill, who first appeared as a panelist on the show in 1992, and the reported source of the attitude comments, WETA Executive Vice President and Chief Programming Officer Dalton Delan , say they're not out to give their audience something completely different. Ifill wants her roundtable conversations to be "smart and insightful and accessible,"she says, qualities that don't require raised voices or the use of slang. What is missing from the abundance of talk programs, she says, is an exchange "not [of] points of view but points of analysis."
Delan says a number of people called her debut "a breath of fresh air,"and he thinks Ifill can attract younger viewers to the program. But as for how he wants the show to evolve, he simply says, "I'd like it to take the direction that Gwen would like it to take."
For Bode, that direction is straight ahead. Edge and attitude will "never happen with Gwen Ifill,"he says, and the show will be "imperceptibly"different.
Bode, who says the events over the year have deepened his friendship with Ifill, calls her hire "a great gain for public television."He loved having her on the program, he says, because of her unique perspective. "She would not be a purveyor of conventional wisdom."
Ifill, a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun , the Washington Post and the New York Times before making the switch to NBC in 1994, says Bode and former "Washington Week"moderator Paul Duke were "wonderful colleagues and guides"in helping her move from print to TV.
Her recent appointment is also significant because she's the first African American to host the show and the first black woman to head a high-profile political discussion program. But while it is certainly a nice advancement in her career, she says, one person may not be an indicator of change in the industry.
Actually, moving to the head of the table wasn't that huge a leap for Ifill, a self-described "gabber"and an easy choice for Delan.
"Because I've been at 'Washington Week' for so many yearsÉI know everybody,"she says. "And we've been talking like this for years."