Judy Woodruff will step away from the PBS NewsHour anchor desk on Friday, ending a chapter as one of the most trusted and well respected figures helming a newscast.
She will be handing the anchor duties to Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett, returning the broadcast to a co-anchor format, but Woodruff is not exiting. Instead, she’s embarking on a new assignment, traveling across America to try to make sense of the country’s divisions, which have only worsened in the decade that she has served as anchor. It’s perhaps fitting that she will be doing the assignment for NewsHour, which throughout its run has been dedicated to the type of nuance and in-depth reporting that is meant to inform and enlighten rather than ignite.
On the day she chatted with Deadline, Woodruff was preparing for special coverage of the visit of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington, D.C., while much of the town was fixated on the pending release of the January 6th Committee report and the fate of a year-end spending package. What Woodruff had not done is determine exactly what she would say in her signoff.
“Several people have said to me, ‘Well, aren’t you feeling emotional?’ And I guess yes I do,” she said. “Certainly there will be some emotion about it because I’ve been doing this for so long. But I’ve also been pretty busy.” She does plan to assure viewers about her successors and to thank the staff of the show and at WETA-TV, the PBS station that produces NewsHour. And she plans to express gratitude to viewers, a loyal audience that includes one woman who sent in a video of her toddler son humming the NewsHour “bup boom boom” cue in its theme music.
Woodruff chatted with Deadline about her career, her next assignment and why she sees stick-to-the-facts journalism as essential in a sea of opinion.
DEADLINE: Your next chapter you’re going to be working on trying to understand this divided time in American politics. How did you decide on this project as your next one?
JUDY WOODRUFF: I’ve been thinking about when was the right time to step away from the anchor desk, and what in the world was I going to do next. I knew that I wanted to do it when I was still have the interest, the energy, the enthusiasm to continue working and to continue contributing. It’s just kind of evolved over the last year. I’ve thought about what is the country facing, and the overwhelming thing that keeps hitting me in the face is that we are divided in a way that I’ve never seen us.
I’ve covered Washington since 1977. Of course, before that time, we were divided over Vietnam, and I of course know from the history books about the McCarthy era and so on. And people have pointed that out to me that there have been previous times of division in our country. But I don’t think there’s ever been a time where we’ve been as personally divided as it feels as if we are today, where families can hardly get together over the Thanksgiving or holiday dinner table, where neighbors are shouting at each other, where school boards are having arguments, people trying to get rid of school board members and teachers and principals because of what they’re teaching. And the list goes on. Earlier this year, it just coalesced in my mind and I said, “Well, this is what I want to do.” And I started putting a plan together and very quickly shared it with Sara Just, our executive producer, and told her about it. She was immediately on board. We agreed this is something that needs to be looked at. … It’s not that everybody isn’t already talking about it. But what I want to do is travel around the country, try to go to places that we don’t ordinarily get to visit, and sit down with people and hear what they have to say about their own concerns, worries, hopes, what do they think about their children’s future. And just to sum it up, try to understand why we’re so divided, whether they think we’re as divided as it looks like we are, and to bring those conversations to the NewsHour. [Also to] sprinkle in, intersperse that with conversations with people who’ve written and thought deeply about this — writers, journalists, sociologists, economists, educators, political scientists and politicians, people who are in public service. Just trying to understand it better.
DEADLINE: Do you see those divisions even in the feedback you get from viewers. Do you see people just arguing about the basic facts?
WOODRUFF: Well, sure. We see it in news reporting across the board. I was out in the field this fall covering Senate races in two states that were that were close — Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. You see it in the people you speak with, you certainly see it other reporting I follow. …It’s clear that something is different now, and this and this notion that you’re pointing out about facts that people have their own sets of beliefs. Some Americans are now rejecting information that is proven fact.
Most of it has been around Covid, around the pandemic, but also obviously around the election in 2020. And all this is evolving. Every day something happens that sort of changes the form and the shape of this division and people’s beliefs. But the thing that concerns me is that people are now operating with different sets of facts. … I know people have disagreed from the beginning of the Republic. Thank goodness we can disagree in our democracy. Thank goodness we don’t kill each other or throw somebody in prison for their beliefs. But we are at a very contentious time for many Americans. And I’m just interested to know, how deep does that go? Is that the surface? Is that all the way down through the country?
DEADLINE: How much do you think that the news media has contributed to those divisions?
WOODRUFF: Some of our politicians have played a role in the way they speak about issues and the way they speak about what’s going on in the country, the challenges we face, from the pandemic, to issues around education, around what we teach children in the schools and what how children are treated in schools depending on their beliefs, their identity. And so I think there’s no question about that, but also the news media. We all know that media in general has discovered a long time ago that what draws viewers and followers and readers is argument and debate and drama and suspense, and I think there’s no question that that many in the press — not all, but many — have played on this and tried, frankly, to expand audiences by focusing more on the disagreement, on the fights, on the arguments, on the name calling than on anything else. And I understand as a reporter, that yes, that’s news. It’s news when people are fighting. But I also think that in so doing, and because we have limited time and space in our in our news organizations, whether it’s broadcast, online or print, that we have to make choices. And so I think it’s important for us to think broadly about these things and not just to focus on the fights and the meanness of it that’s clearly out there.
DEADLINE: A lot has been written about how Washington has changed, where politicians used to get together socially much more often. Have you seen a change even over the last 10 years?
WOODRUFF: I’m not sure I can put a date on it, but it’s clearly changed. I circle back to the early ’90s. It was after the election of President Clinton … I remember Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, and the feeling that there was just this, you’re either on one side or the other side, and there’s not much in the middle. … It felt like there were the barriers were getting built up. And then you had the 2000 election of course where the Supreme Court decided who was president. You had Al Gore concede. There was a sense on the part of Democrats that election didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to or it should have. And then along came the election of President Obama, where people say he wasn’t really an American, he was born somewhere else. And then it grew. And along comes the election of President Trump, which we all know has been a very divided period in American history. … I think by 2012, it was clear that the country was pretty divided. But to me, it’s just gotten worse in the last few years, especially in the last few years.
DEADLINE: Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic called you “a model of restraint coolness and appropriate professional distance from the news.” That has kind of defined a lot of your career. Did that come naturally?
WOODRUFF: Well, first of all, I paid him a lot. OK. I don’t know. I’m not very good at sizing myself up. I just I’m kind of a person who gets up every morning and thinks about what do I need to get done that day and what’s the best thing for the work that we’re doing. And I so I was very complimented to hear that — restraint, professionalism. I’ve always believed that the work we do in journalism is just [that] we should be covering the story, period. If you want to worry about opinion, there’s plenty of space for that. But I’m about reporting and gathering the facts. It’s what I was taught from the very beginning of my career, and that’s what I’m all about, and that’s what the NewsHour is about. It’s one of the reasons I left NBC in 1983 to go to the NewsHour the first time to work with Jim [Lehrer] and Robin [MacNeil] and [executive producer] Les Crystal because I could see that this was a program that was going to be serious without taking ourselves too seriously. It was going to be about focusing on what’s real. And that’s become ever more important over the years, and I would say never more important than in the last a number of years where we just seem to be swimming in a sea of opinion right now. And I think the NewsHour fills a really important place in focusing on reporting reporting, reporting, and thinking really hard about what does our audience need to know.
DEADLINE: Have you had moments where you’ve kind of wanted to express your opinion or express anger over a certain story?
WOODRUFF: I honestly believe there’s no such thing as objectivity for journalists. Having said what I just said, about go after the facts, that’s our job, [but] at the same time, we are human. We have feelings. When I see children suffering either in a war zone or in a pandemic, or right now with the country kind of overwhelmed with all these viruses and RSV, I react. I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother of a 5 year old, by the way. And so I care a lot, and not just about children. I care about humanity, of course, and so when I see people suffering, when I see people being treated unfairly, when I see inequity and inequality, just suffering in any form, unequal treatment in any form, I’m human. I do react to that. I don’t think it’s my job to share that. But if something is just clearly wrong, in my view, and if people are being treated … unfairly, badly, if they’re suffering — that will be part of the reporting that I do. I can’t help that. But I’m not going to say that that’s part of my daily job. For example … we’re doing some international reporting and domestic reporting every day, whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, what’s going on in the Middle East, where I may say something coming out of a piece. Jeffrey Brown is our incredible arts and culture correspondent. Some of the stories that he’s done, shining a light on remarkable artists, filmmakers, others — I will react to that. It’s not going to be the essence of my work, but I’m human too and I think that has a place in journalism.
DEADLINE: According to the New York Times, at the start of your career you were worried you weren’t strong enough to be a newspaper reporter. So then you applied to the local broadcast station.
WOODRUFF: When I started to think even about journalism, I was already a senior in college. I majored in math and then switched to political science. I had never written for the school paper. I had never really given serious thought to journalism, but … I was told that women were not going to be given a serious job in Washington, and I shouldn’t apply for a job on the Hill. And so I started thinking, “What in the world else am I going to do?” And a professor in college said to me, “Would you ever think about covering politics? You might do that for a couple of years and see if you liked that.” And based on multiple conversations I had, I thought, “OK, I’ll apply for a job. But I don’t have any newspaper clips.” And I knew that a newspaper was not going to hire somebody who had never written, never done any journalism. So I thought, “Well, I’ll start out in broadcast.” …. I [had] said, “Well, I don’t want to be a gofer,” and then I ended up being a secretary, a gofer. I was running errands for the news director, taking notes, answering the phone. At the time I was just too young to put the picture together. But that was the era. It was 1968 when I was graduating, and I just thought the only job I could get was at the ground level, entry level. And sure enough, I was lucky. One of the one of the news directors, the ABC affiliate news director in Atlanta, hired me as the newsroom secretary.
DEADLINE: You have said you still get nervous doing interviews. Is there any interview that stands out as particularly challenging for you?
WOODRUFF: For me, it’s every single newsmaker interview. For example, last Friday, I was so pleased that the CIA director Bill Burns agreed to an interview. He does very little with the press on the record, and he does very few television interviews. And so we went to CIA headquarters. I sat down with him last Friday morning, and you can believe that I was sweating that one out. I knew it mattered a lot how that interview turned out. I had specific things I wanted to talk to him about … and as it turned out, he made some news in the way he spoke about China, Taiwan, about Russia, Ukraine and even about North Korea. I asked him, I said, “How much of a challenge is it dealing with North Korea because we don’t have eyes and ears on the ground?” And he didn’t say anything. He just sort of looked at me. I said, “Oh, OK, do you want to say anything else?” And then he also said that TikTok was a national security concern, which made news. But I was nervous, and I’ll be nervous between now and next Friday, or and even beyond that. When I’m interviewing somebody who has the potential to make news, someone who’s in a position to change the course of policy of this country, and frankly even talking to ordinary people, I want those interviews to go well too.
DEADLINE: You have told the story about getting hired at a station in Atlanta [and the person who hired you] said, “How could I not hire someone with legs like yours?” You have talked about how different it was for women when you got your start. What do you think are still some of the biggest challenges now for women in the news media?
WOODRUFF: Clearly women have come a very long way. There are more women, not just on the air, but women who are producers, editors, writers. And you see it across the board. Our executive producer Sara Just is a woman. A woman leads the public television station that is our producing station, Sharon Rockefeller. Public broadcasting is doing a fantastic job of promoting women, giving women opportunities, and I see increasing numbers of women in management. That was the sort of the last frontier for me. I kept saying, over the years, “Well, we’re promoting women, but we don’t have enough women in management.” We’ve done better but I think we still could do better. We will always need more women, and quite frankly more minorities, more people of color, in management, in those jobs where decisions are made about what to cover, who’s promoted, who gets to cover stories. How do we cover them? We need to look like America. And that’s true of print journalism, as well as broadcast journalism. So we’ve made a lot of progress. But we still, in my view, have a long way to go.