Ifill brings grace, warmth to PBS talk

Gwen Ifill smiles into the TV camera as she stands on a stage in front of 1,000 people. She recites the introduction to her "Washington Week in Review" program with charm, ease, and grace. Pause. Pause. Pause. The producer asks for another take. Ifill gives him another, apparently as flawless as the first. More waiting. One more time, please, she hears. We have a technical flub. Unflustered, she goes again. Word perfect ... again.

Professionalism, intelligence, and good humor make Ms. Ifill seem a natural to moderate the venerable TV talk show. But her rise to host actually has been a kind of quiet revolution.

"Washington Week" visited Northeastern University in Boston earlier this month, one of many little innovations going on in the tradition-bound program under Ifill. She sees such field trips as a way to get outside the Beltway and talk with ordinary Americans. It was also a chance for her to return to some of her roots. She went to college in Boston, and her first journalism job was with the Boston Herald American. Her brother and many admiring fans were in the packed auditorium.

Ifill took over the helm of the Friday night PBS show in October. She's the first woman and first African-American to fill that seat. Previous occupants have included Robert MacNeil and Paul Duke.

Her immediate predecessor, Ken Bode, left the show a year ago when he felt he was being asked to make it more combative, more like the "shout shows" that pass for political dialogue on commercial TV. His fears have not been realized, and Ifill says she wouldn't have taken the job under those conditions. "They knew in coming to me for this position that I wasn't a rock 'n' roll kind of girl," she said in a telephone interview from Washington later. "I wasn't going to change the show drastically. But, that said, my very presence, my very personality is obviously very different from what preceded me, and just by [my] being in that chair the show takes on a different flavor.

"But I'm still committed to the idea that it's a serious, nonshouting, nonopinionated dissection kind of conversation about the week's issues."

Still, innovations are under way. The Boston show was followed by a Web cast ("The Web is impossible to ignore," she says) in which the audience asked questions of the panelists. "You don't want to toy with a franchise," Ifill says. Still, her staff and guests constantly suggest changes.

"Every week somebody has an idea, 'Maybe we can try this!' " she says.

She also realizes she's a role model in a business that doesn't see many black women in prominent on-air positions. "It's something I embrace," she says. "I can't stress how important it is that young people know that anything is possible for them, and that if it means that a little black girl sitting in her living room somewhere sees me on TV and thinks 'maybe I could do that,' then I feel like my day's work is done. I want to be that kind of example, and I'm very conscious of it and happy for it."

Though Ifill and her guests, some of the best reporters in Washington, love to talk politics, she sees the current lull in the political races as an opportunity to discuss other issues that may be more on viewers minds. "We like the idea that when people turn us on, they're checking in with a familiar group of friends at a dinner table, and listening to them talk ... in a really intelligent way rather than [a group of] stuffy Washington insiders lecturing them on what they ought to think!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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