Judy Woodruff's tales of perseverance enthrall at Poynter Bowtie Ball
In the beginning, there was just one woman per station.
That’s how Judy Woodruff, the groundbreaking anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour summed up her entry into the world of broadcast journalism.
A pioneer in the industry, Woodruff was the 2017 recipient of the Poynter Institute’s Medal of Lifetime Achievement in Journalism during the third annual Bowtie Ball held Saturday at the Hilton Carillon in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In describing the plight of aspiring female journalists during the late 1960s, Woodruff shared her experience of applying for her first job as a newsroom secretary – one of the few positions open to women during the time.
After securing a position at a CBS affiliate in Atlanta, her hiring manager declared: “Besides, how can I not hire somebody with legs like yours.”
“I would love to tell you I had a great comeback," Woodruff told the audience.
“The truth is, I just slumped my shoulders and slunk out the door,” she said, reminding more than 420 guests that it occurred in the spring of 1968 and she just wanted to get her foot in the door. Woodruff shared that she would eventually get her big break as the “weekend weather girl.”
The packed crowd of local and national journalists, business and community leaders and students were treated to conversations on topics crucial to our democracy as well as the constant call for accountability and integrity from the evening’s presenters.
Earlier in the evening, Paul E. Steiger received the Distinguished Service to Journalism Award in a festive event that honors the mission and legacy of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
“I’m delighted to be the warm-up act for Judy Woodruff who I’ve known and respected since the 1970’s. She was five,” quipped the longtime journalist and founding editor-in-chief of ProPublica.
Steiger’s work in journalism has been just as exemplary. In addition to securing his staff at the Wall Street Journal from the shadows of the devastation of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks, he also started ProPublica, a nonprofit that has won four Pulitzer Prizes. He’s been credited as one of the first newsroom leaders to recognize that the industry needs philanthropic support.
During his acceptance speech, Steiger praised the Tampa Bay Times as the largest and most impactful newsroom in the third largest state, Florida, while also giving a nod to PolitiFact, the fact checking website that rates the accuracy of claims made by elected officials.
He went on to point to the challenges unique to Florida, especially rising sea levels, while adding that commitment to solid reporting will be essential as journalism continues to go through organic economic challenges.
But Woodruff was the toast of the evening.
“I’m blown away by this. (Poynter) … it’s a place I’ve honored and respected for years,” said Woodruff upon receiving the award from Neil Brown, Poynter president, and Paul Tash, CEO of Times Publishing Co. and chairman of the board for the Poynter Institute. (Poynter owns the Times.) “To have this (medal) hanging around my neck is very special. I’m touched by this.”
The award honors the career achievements of a journalist or member of the media whose work has had a lasting impact in serving citizens in our democracy. Previous recipients include CBS’ Bob Schieffer in 2015 and former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw in 2016.
Woodruff’s impressive career has spanned more than four decades, where she’s covered every administration since President Jimmy Carter.
What were her most memorable moments?
One of the worst experiences was when President Reagan was shot, said Woodruff.
“I was just 20 feet away,” she said adding that she had been shouting a question about Lech Walesa, the former Polish politician and activist.
Woodruff said the experience taught her that journalists have to be prepared in an instant, maintain composure and go on and report the story.
Another memorable experience came while at CNN during the 2000 presidential election. “We waited and waited for Florida,” she said, noting the hanging chads and all the implications that came along with the missteps of that fateful night and ensuing weeks.
“We in television media did not cover ourselves with glory that night,” she said, reminding the audience of how some networks had called the election for one candidate long before the results were in.
A more favorable memory came when Woodruff and a colleague broke the glass ceiling at PBS.
“The fact of being part of the Gwen Ifill team, to be the first women to anchor a national newscast. We were humbled and thrilled in 2013,” she said.
Soon after the presentation, Woodruff was joined on stage by the Poynter Institute’s newest faculty member, Indira Lakshmanan, a Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics who facilitated a discussion on topics ranging from mentoring journalists to sexual harassment, and the evolution of fake news.
Woodruff has made mentoring an essential part of paying it forward, adding that it was an important part of her work with Ifill, who died in late 2016.
“I saw her doing this kind of mentoring and she was doing it at an industrial strength,” she said, adding that they both believed in reaching out to women, men and young journalists of color.
“Those of us who have the privilege to do the work, have the obligation to pass it on,” said Woodruff.
On the more recent issue of sexual harassment, Woodruff shared that she “doesn’t know of a single woman in the business who hasn’t had to deal with it at one degree or another.”
In light of recent revelations in the news, including at PBS partner NPR, Woodruff said she believes not enough has been done. “I think now women are gathering the courage to speak up about it and we have to celebrate that.”
On the issue of fake news, Woodruff was passionate in her assessment of what’s at stake.
“We are in a fraught time in the media,” she said.
“We are being tested everyday. Everything is being watched closely, like we’ve never seen before,” she said, pointing out the contentious relationship mainstream media has with President Donald Trump. “We are at a moment when people are looking at the news and their opinions have risen and fact-based journalism has taken a back seat.”
To combat this, Woodruff suggests journalists simply stick to the basics by figuring out what stories matter and put them out there.
“In the end, I believe that the good will rise in this country,” says Woodruff.
“Just do your job as best you can because our democracy depends on it.”