On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Judy Woodruff was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved often due to her father’s position in the Army. The Woodruffs eventually settled in Augusta, Georgia where Ms. Woodruff attended high school.
She studied mathematics at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and transferred to Duke after her sophomore year, switching degrees to political science. Woodruff applied for her first job in journalism her senior year at Duke, becoming a secretary at WQXI-TV, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, Georgia. A year later, Woodruff crossed town for her first reporter position at the CBS affiliate WAGA-TV. She covered the Georgia Legislature and began anchoring the evening news.
In 1975, Woodruff went to NBC News and covered Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. She followed Carter to D.C. in 1977, where she has remained to this day. On March 30, 1981, still with NBC, Ms. Woodruff witnessed the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.
In 1983, she left NBC and became the Chief Washington Correspondent at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Ten years later Woodruff left for CNN, only to return to the PBS program in 2006, then titled The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Soon after Lehrer’s retirement in 2013, Woodruff began co-anchoring the PBS NewsHour with Gwen Ifill, the first two women to co-anchor a national news broadcast. After Ifill’s passing in 2016, Woodruff became the sole anchor of the PBS NewsHour, where she remains today.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
- Judy Woodruff Anchor & Managing Editor, PBS NewsHour; @JudyWoodruff
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Judy Woodruff was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved often, due to her father's position in the Army. The Woodruffs eventually settled in August, Georgia, where she attended high school. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in political science in 1968. Her first job in journalism was at the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, Georgia. A year later, Woodruff moved across town for her first reporter position at the CBS affiliate there. She joined the national desk at NBC in 1975, then became the chief Washington correspondent at "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
KOJO NNAMDITen years later, Woodruff left for CNN, only to return to the PBS program in 2007. Soon after Jim Lehrer's retirement in 2013, Woodruff began co-anchoring "The PBS NewsHour" with Gwen Ifill, where they made history as the first women to co-anchor a national news broadcast. After Ifill's passing in 2016, Woodruff became the sole anchor of the show, where she remains today. She joins us now. Judy Woodruff, the anchor and managing editor at the PBS NewsHour. Judy Woodruff, thank you so much for joining us.
JUDY WOODRUFFKojo Nnamdi, it is such a treat to talk to you. I'm such a big fan.
NNAMDILikewise, you know. Judy, let's start with how you got interested in journalism. You began college as a mathematics major at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, before transferring to Duke and switching majors to political science. Which is, by the way, what I always used to tell student interns who wanted to get into broadcasting and/or communications. I used to say, "You need to get into political science." But why did you make that switch, and what ended up drawing you to journalism?
WOODRUFFWell, it's a long and circuitous road, Kojo. But what happened was I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to have a career. My mother had been a stay-at-home mom, and she always encouraged me to get an education and do some kind of work that I loved. And I started out in math, because I really love numbers, but I had a calculus instructor my freshman year in college who really thought women should not be taking advanced math. And he treated all the women in the class as if we were, frankly, idiots.
WOODRUFFBut, fortunately, I was taking a course in political science that same year, fell in love with it, fell in love with politics and government in a way that I hadn't really before that. And so changed my major, transferred to Duke. Worked in Washington for a couple of summers for my congressman, and really thought that I would end up working in government, doing something. But the second summer I was in Washington, the other women I was working with on Capitol Hill said, "Don't come back to Washington, because you'll be a gopher." This was 1967, the summer. They said, "You won't be taken seriously."
WOODRUFFSo, I went back to Duke my senior year, and I had a professor, when I lamented, you know, what I had been told, shared it with him, he said, "Well, did you ever think about covering politics?" And he started talking about journalism, and it was at that point. So, it was circuitous, but once I'd thought about it, I realized that was where I needed to be.
NNAMDIYour first job in journalism was at a local TV station in Atlanta, as a secretary. Did your male colleagues just starting out in the field, like yourself, land their first jobs in the field as secretaries, too? (laugh)
WOODRUFF(laugh) I don't think so. My husband just came in the room with our Golden Retriever puppy we're sharing with our daughter. So, I was momentarily distracted. Sorry, but not at all. I mean, I don't know what they started as, but the only job offer I had, or that I even -- they told me I was even qualified for was to be the newsroom secretary. Which means I would empty the trash, (laugh) clean the film, take dictation from the news director. But that's where I learned, and that's where I fell in love with reporting, watching those reporters go out, come back with their stories and write them up. And I was just dying to do what they did.
NNAMDIIt's amazing how race and gender factor into these things. A close friend of mine who went on to be a columnist for The Miami Herald had his first job in journalism -- he is black -- as a part-time janitor at a newspaper. (laugh) In 1979, you were the White House correspondent for NBC News, covering President Jimmy Carter, as was your colleague, Leslie Stahl, at CBS. Here is Leslie Stahl in 1999, speaking about the first time the two of you were at the White House together.
LESLIE STAHLCatfight. Two women, CBS, NBC, had to be a catfight. My very first day, the men asked us to stand back-to-back. And they were saying that they wanted to see who was taller. They had us, you know, in the boxing match, and this was the weighing in. And they wanted to see us duke it out. But we were friends. We disappointed them.
NNAMDIJudy Woodruff, can you talk about that moment at the White House and, more broadly, about being in the field of journalism as a woman, especially during the '70s and '80s?
WOODRUFFWell, it was -- that was the '70s, and Leslie's exactly right. I mean, it wasn't just our colleagues. It was our bosses who, I think, thought we would be pitted against each other. And we were competitors. I mean, we competed, you know, fiercely for stories and who was going to scoop whom. But we were also friends. We knew we were in the trenches together, as we were with other women. I mean, Helen Thomas had been at the White House, at that point, since what, the Kennedy administration? So, she was a great mentor for me and, I know, for other women.
WOODRUFFBut we were just treated -- it was just different. And I think women in television, it was just a different era. Today, you look up and you see so many women covering the White House, being forthright and asking these tough questions, and it's entirely expected. I mean, my colleague, my young colleague Yamiche Alcindor has excelled at the White House. But back then we were pioneers, and we were. We were viewed as, you now, it was almost like -- I told someone it was like putting two scorpions in a bottle. They were going to see who killed whom.
NNAMDI(laugh) After Carter won the election, you remained in D.C. Why did you decide to stay and make D.C. your home?
WOODRUFFI fell in love with Washington. And, by the way, I had met the man I would marry. Al Hunt and I were married in 1980, 41 years ago, next month. And I actually met him on the campaign trail in Plains, Georgia, covering the Carter campaign. But he and I were married, and there was no way I was going to go anywhere. I love covering the White House. I love politics. I did move on at NBC to doing "The Today Show," doing "Today Show" interviews for a year or so before I moved to PBS and to the "NewsHour." But this city is magic, to me. I love the people who are here. I love the people, the place. And here I am, how many years later?
NNAMDIYou bought your first house on Porter Street in Cleveland Park, and it's my understanding that your car was towed on the street in front of what used to be the 7-Eleven there. I remember it well. But it was towed the day President Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Do I have that right?
WOODRUFF(laugh) Well, you remember, or maybe you're too young to remember, but Jimmy Carter was -- part of the reason he was defeated was because of the hostages, the American hostages at the Embassy in Iran who had not been released. And they were going to be released, we expected, on the day Reagan was inaugurated. So, we had all been up very late the night before.
WOODRUFFI got up the morning of January the 20th, drove -- it was cold. We lived on Porter, I lived on Porter Street, drove -- I turned the corner onto Connecticut Avenue to the 7-Eleven, left the car motoring running to run in to get a cup of coffee and a donut. Came back out, and the police had taken my car. I think I was in there maybe two minutes, three minutes. But there I was -- my purse, all my notes, everything were in that car. But I had to get to work. I mean, it was Inauguration Day. So, you know, I got a cab and went to work and figured it out, but, hey, you know, that's Washington.
NNAMDIYes. A few months ago, the Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh left her car running outside Bread First on Connecticut Avenue, only to walk out and see it being driven away, but not by the police. In her case, it was by car thieves, so she had a slightly different experience. Later that year, in 1981, you witnessed the assassination attempt of President Reagan. Walk us through those intense moments outside the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue.
WOODRUFFKojo, it was 40 years ago today, March the 30th, 1981. Reagan had been in office just a little more than two months. I was in the press pool which is, I'm sure your listeners know, this is a group of reporters who get selected to travel with the president, whether it's in the city or on the road, to keep the numbers of press down. And we went to the Hilton Hotel. He made a speech to a labor group. He came out. I was standing there with just a few other people on the other side of his limousine, watched him come out the door. Was starting to yell a question at him about Poland.
WOODRUFFLech Walesa was leading the opposition in Poland, and something had happened that morning. And I was yelling, and you could hear this pop, pop, pop, pop, rapid pops, which sounded like, you know, a balloon bursting. But, of course, people were screaming, get down, get down. And, in fact, I just saw on Twitter today, the Reagan press aide who was standing next to me remembers that he pushed me down. I remember somebody pushed me down, because we were all clumped together.
WOODRUFFBut it all happened in an instant. The motorcade, The President was shoved in the car, the motorcade drove off. I had to make a decision about whether to jump in the press van or stay there. I stayed there, because I didn't think the President had been hit. I saw three people lying on the ground and felt that was where the story was, and I stayed there. But it was, of course, a day I'll never forget. Jim Brady was, clearly, terribly wounded. There was a D.C. policeman and a Secret Service agent. And it was -- you know, it's one of those things you can never prepare for, never prepare for.
NNAMDIYou know, for all of us in journalism, this past year has been extraordinary, covering and living through a pandemic, protests in one of the most contentious presidential elections in our history. What has this past year been like for you, as a journalist?
WOODRUFFYou know, it's a complicated question, Kojo. I mean, on the one hand, I just am so grateful to my colleagues at the NewsHour, because we've all been working from home with the exception of just a handful of us who have to be there in our studio over in Shirlington, across the river, in Virginia. But most of us are working from home, doing the kind of work we never dreamed we'd be doing outside the office, doing research, talking to each other via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and constant phone calls and texts and messages.
WOODRUFFAnd I have, now, the library. In the condominium where my husband and I live is converted into a TV studio. We call it the Judio, but it's full of computers and lights and cameras and boxes and wires, and so forth, lights. So, on the one hand, I'm grateful for, you know, just the extraordinary capability, talent, work ethic of everybody, you know, I'm so fortunate to work with.
WOODRUFFOn the other hand, it has been such a tragedy. Every day, we've reported on deaths, people's lives turned upside down, people losing their jobs, grand children who couldn't visit their grandparents in the nursing home. I get emotional just thinking about it. And I think of all the things that have come from it. And I think we're still not through it. We're almost in April of 2021, and we're still dealing with it. I mean, yesterday, as you know, the report was that there's a surge in some parts of the country.
WOODRUFFBut journalism, I think, has been called on to do some of the hardest work we've ever done. And yet, some of my colleagues have just been completely amazing in the reporting they've done. So, it's brought out the best in us, but it's also been really hard.
NNAMDIAnd I, too, have been working from home for over a year now. And you should know that your husband Al Hunt tweets about you working from home. I don't know if these are intended to be mocking tweets or admiring tweets on his part. (laugh)
WOODRUFF(laugh) Knowing Al, I think it's the former. (laugh)
NNAMDIHere is Giotti, in Washington, D.C. Giotti, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GIOTTIOh, thank you, Kojo. Good to be on your show again. I just wanted to express my admiration for Judy Woodruff and the entire staff of "The PBS NewsHour." I've been watching it from the time of "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" since I came to this country. And all I can say is it's a show which is close to perfection.
GIOTTII grew up in (word?) BBC World Service, and that was perfection for me. And I -- within two days of coming to this -- going through all the hundreds of channels, I decided I have to just watch "PBS NewsHour." And it's been fantastic. It's just absolutely fantastic. The staff is tremendous. And I just wanted to make a quick mention about the heroic role of Lisa Desjardins...
GIOTTIYeah, Desjardins during the January 6th insurrection. She was there in the middle of the building, at great risk to herself. I mean, I can't -- it was just tremendous. And she was reporting live with all those people rushing by her with arms and everything else. It was just tremendous. So, just thank you very much, Judy. And I hope you continue to do this for a very long time. Thank you, again.
NNAMDIYou should know, Giotti, that we had Lisa on our show the very day after that reporting that you saw. So, she was able to help our listeners understand exactly what was going on. Thanks to her, again, for that, and thanks for you to calling -- for calling and reminding us about it. Care to comment, Judy?
WOODRUFFOh, Lisa is just -- I mean, I'm in awe of Lisa Desjardins. We were live during all that, and, as Giotti just said, she put herself at great risk to follow the people who were breaking into the Capitol. I mean, from the moment she reported, and I'm sure you talked to her about this, Kojo, they were banging on the window, banging on the door. She was there as they broke the glass down, but she followed. She followed them. She reported. She was extraordinary.
WOODRUFFMy other -- another colleague, Amna Nawaz, was out on the grounds of the Capitol as all this was unfolding. And everybody who was supporting them on our staff, it was a frightening day. And I think I saw some of the very best work that my colleagues have done in that time. But thank you so much, Giotti, for -- as you know, all the credit does to my amazing colleagues, both our predecessors from Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil to the wonderful and one-and-only Gwen Ifill who, you know, we all miss to this very day.
NNAMDILet's talk about Gwen for a second, because in 2013, soon after Jim Lehrer retired, the co-founding host of the broadcast, you and Gwen Ifill were named the co-hosts of the newly named "PBS NewsHour," becoming the first women to co-anchor a national news broadcast. It's frankly amazing to me that it took until 2013. How did it feel for you, at the time?
WOODRUFFThere were really two layers to it, Kojo. On the one hand, we were thrilled. It was exciting. We were honored. I mean, to be picking up the mantel from Jim who, of course, had carried the show on his shoulders since the retirement of Robin MacNeil in 1995. So, when Jim stepped down, it was an incredible honor for us.
WOODRUFFOn the other hand, it was like another day at work. I mean, we were so used to working together, working with our amazing staff and I can't praise enough. So, we just kept going. And Gwen and I decided very early on -- I mean, this kind of gets back to what Leslie Stahl said so many years ago that we thought if they ever -- we said to each other that, you know, there may be attempts because it's two women, for people, you know, to pick apart what our differences are.
WOODRUFFWe are always going to be as close as we can possibly be. And we will always have each other's backs. And that's exactly the way it worked. I always knew I had her back, certainly, and I knew she had mine. And that's why it was such an incredible loss when we lost her.
NNAMDIIs there a moment that stands out, your most memorable moment, anchoring with Gwen Ifill?
WOODRUFFI think my -- probably not one, but my favorite moments were at the political conventions. In 2012, when we were co-anchoring in '16, when Gwen, at that point, she had already become ill. She was still working through it. She was just as tough as she could be. But, I mean, nobody brings a greater knowledge of politics, nobody did, than Gwen did. She was full of anecdotes, you know, no fear. I mean, she would pose any question, you know, the toughest questions. And it was just a delight being with her on the set for four nights, four days at two different conventions in both of those years. Those were really some of my greatest memories.
NNAMDIWe all miss Gwen Ifill. Here now is Rosa in -- or not Rosa, Ross in Arlington, Virginia. Ross, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROSSHello, there. Thank you for taking my call. I should actually mention that I worked at the "PBS NewsHour" five years ago, and it was a great honor to work with you, Judy. My question is: There's a lot of distrust of the mainstream media these days. I saw a Gallup poll that said that only 40 percent of Americans in September had a great deal of or fair amount of trust in the media. And I'm wondering, what can institutions like "The PBS NewsHour" do to restore that trust among the American people? Thank you.
WOODRUFFRoss, it's such a good question, and thank you, and thank you for the time you were with us at the NewsHour. I mean, this is one of my, I guess, greatest frustrations, is that I know how hard so many of -- I mean, all my colleagues at the "NewsHour," so many people I know who work in journalism in Washington and around the country, how dedicated they are to getting the facts, telling these stories.
WOODRUFFAnd yet, there is, as we know, this distrust that was there. There was always some distrust, but it's just grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, partly because -- clearly because of President Trump, you know, and the way he talked about the press, calling us enemies of the people, of the American people, which, of course, is nonsense.
WOODRUFFBut we have to -- my answer to that is that we're not going to turn that off in a moment or a day or a year. We have to just keep doing our job. We have to keep reporting, put one foot in front of the other. Remember that we don't have all the answers, be humble, and understand that we're not going to please everybody all the time. And there's always going to be a big chunk of people who don't like what we're reporting, because they disagree with it.
WOODRUFFBut in order to have their trust and respect, at least some of them, we just have to keep doing what we do and keep our heads down and not try to become part of the fight. I don't think it's in our interest to get into a fight with whoever our political leaders are, no matter what party they're in.
NNAMDIHere's John in Colonial Beach, Virginia. John you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYeah, Judy Woodruff, can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
WOODRUFFI can. Hello, John.
JOHNYes. Thanks very much then. I do watch your program. One thing caught my eye, I'd like to mention. I hope you don't mind, it's kind of a question that this Friday you had a piece about Larry McMurtry who wrote "Terms of Endearment," who passed away. Remember that this past Friday?
WOODRUFFI sure do.
JOHNWell, I was a student at Kearney State College when he was a professor, and I knew the girl who was chasing after him. And I want to let you know that, as a result of the movie -- well, the book came first, he had another English professor help him write the book back in 1976 and published it in '77, then it became a movie in '83. And Kearney State College exploded from (unintelligible) teachers' college in a cornfield in Nebraska and became 10,000 kids in five years, all because of the movie. And that's what the movie and the book did when I saw everything.
NNAMDIOkay. I'm afraid we're almost out of time. I just wanted to get Matt in Great Falls. And, Matt, you only have about 30 seconds, but go ahead, please.
MATTHello. How are you both?
NNAMDIWe're doing well, but you've got to hurry up.
MATTIt's so great to talk to two D.C. legends. It really is. I don't normally call into radio shows too often but I just figured today was a perfect day, you know, to just let you know that, Judy, you are the most professional journalist I've ever seen. I just think it's such a lost art. And Kojo, you're the best. I just wanted to ask you a question. In the time that we've lived in, is it hard for you to sometimes give your opinion with such an opinionated media that we watch these days...
NNAMDIJudy, you only have about 20 seconds to respond. Go ahead, please.
WOODRUFFAs a reporter, as somebody who is trained that nobody really gives a damn what Judy Woodruff thinks, that was my earliest lesson as a reporter. That's not what I do. I think reporters should keep our opinions our of our work. If you're a columnist, it's different, but if you're a reporter, stick to the facts. And it's as basic as that.
NNAMDIJudy, thank you so much for joining us.
WOODRUFFKojo, thank you, and I wish you the very, very best. We'll keep on hearing you on Fridays.
NNAMDIYep, thank you very much. This segment with "PBS NewsHour" host Judy Woodruff was produced by Kurt Gardinier. And our conversation about the excavation of a colonial site in Maryland, St. Mary City, was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up tomorrow, we'll sit down with the new director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And then we will talk with Briana Thomas about her book, "Black Broadway in Washington, D.C.", that highlights the District's black history and how black culture grew and flourished here. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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