By Neal J. Riley
Journalism still has a race problem, prominent black journalist Gwen Ifill said last Thursday at Emerson College.
The host of PBS’s “Washington Week,” Ifill spoke in front of about 200 students and faculty at the Paramount Theatre as part of Emerson’s Communication Week, during which the four departments of Emerson’s School of Communication staged a series of events to discuss their respective fields.
Ifill, a Simmons College graduate who has reported on politics for NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post, said her race has been an obstacle throughout her career from when she started at her first newspaper job at The Boston Herald. One day, Ifill said, she arrived at her desk at The Herald to find a note that said “n-ger go home.”
In newsrooms, racial equality remains a long ways off, Ifill said. While blacks may be appearing in front of the camera, Ifill said that those making the decisions behind the scenes are predominately white. And as many news organizations in the industry are downsizing, blacks may find it even harder to become journalists, Ifill said.
“We are the last ones in and the first ones out,” she said. “Sadly, to me, television news looks the same to me as it did when I was nine years old.”
As moderator of the last two televised vice-presidential debates, Ifill stressed that she always tried to avoid becoming part of the story and let the candidates speak for themselves. She recalled one moment in the 2008 debate when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced that she “may not answer the questions that either the moderator or [Vice President Joe Biden] want to hear.”
“I thought, I could say something like ‘what?’ – which crossed my mind, but I realized the headlines the next day would all be about me,” Ifill said.