Gwen Ifill on Librarians and Journalists

In a radical departure in schedule, this year SLA scheduled its opening session for Sunday night. Judging from the number of people there and the overwhelmingly positive response to the keynote speaker, Gwen Ifill, host of PBS’ Washington Week in Review and co-host of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the gamble seems to have paid off. The opening session started at 6 p.m. with an awards ceremony that lasted until 7:15. I know all the awardees were highly deserving and worked very hard to be worthy of the honor, but it makes for a long night, particularly since it started immediately after the exhibit hall closed.

I’ve been to many keynote addresses where the speaker began by paying cursory homage to libraries and librarians. Consequently, I’m very jaded by the “And I just love libraries” puffery. Gwen Ifill is completely different. She started out by saying that she would have been a librarian if she hadn’t been a journalist. She then said that she didn’t consider the Dewey decimal system a classification system, but a friend. As a child, the library was the only place her parent would let her go unsupervised. Journalism’s gain was librarianship’s loss. Gwen Ifill would have been a superb librarian.

Ifill went on to talk about the similarities between librarians and journalists. We are both trying to dig out information. In her job, she relies upon the PBS library researchers to fill her in on the background information and facts she needs to “look intelligent” when she’s moderating and interviewing on the air.

“Journalism is under assault, sometimes deservedly so, often not,” she said. There are issues about disclosing secret documents. The choice is between doing your job properly and going to jail. She believes that, because of the speed of the Internet, peoples’ minds are made up before anyone knows the facts.

According to Ifill, the universe has changed dramatically. The world she saw on television as a child may have been overly white and male, but it was believable (and there were only three channels). Now there’s more channels, more viewpoints, and (a word she hates) “infotainment.” Popular culture seeps into your consciousness without you knowing how, but somehow the serious news doesn’t seep in in the same way. Why should we know who won American Idol but be unaware of the situation in Darfur or Somalia?

It’s very easy to succumb to skepticism, to believe that all politicians are corrupt, but Ifill, a confessed “political junkie,” knows many politicians who are in office because they want to serve their country in an honest and honorable manner.

September 11th changed how the country looks at Washington. Before 9/11, Ifill would tour the country and be told that people didn’t really care about what happens in Washington. Now they do. We cannot put our heads back in the sand. The general public now gets it and the politicians get it too. They’re starting to pay attention to things that really concern and affect their consittuencies.

Ifill admitted that the media hasn’t done a particularly good job in explaining the inside stories, what politicians say to each other. It’s the “when chickens fly theory of journalism.” A chicken crossing the road isn’t news, but if it flies, then it is. The unusual, the unexpected is news.

The whole business of political reporting can make you cynical. Ifill feels she is fortunate; it’s her job to connect, to make things resonate.

Some of the news media may have gotten off track, but they’ve also uncovered important stories, such as secret prisons, wide-ranging secret domestic eavesdropping, and the plight of people in the wake of Katrina—and those are only the Pulitzer Prize-winning stores. There are many more. Journalists don’t sit back and swallow anything whole.

“Are journalists under fire? Yes and that’s a good thing, it holds us accountable.”

She remains “ridiculously idealistic,” believing that the underdog can be elected. She believes that journalists can change the world, and so can librarians. Together we need to fight for privacy rights for library records and for journalists’ notes and phone records. She concluded by saying, “Welcome to the soup.”

In a lively question and answer session, she noted that PBS doesn’t pull punches because of corporate sponsors. Her day involves reading newspapers (some online) and selected political blogs. Once she’s been assigned a story, she gets a binder of research from the library which she then studies and internalizes. She did sound like a librarian when she said proudly that she knows a little about a lot. The best thing she gleans from the research is to know when the answer to a question she asks isn’t true. That allows her a good follow-up question opportunity. Even if someone doesn’t answer the question, it’s obvious to the audience that it’s happened and the response to Ifill is gratifying.

There’s no doubt she struck a chord with this audience. If she had announced her candidacy for any political office tonight, this crowd would have been ready to vote for her!

Marydee Ojala
Editor, ONLINE: The Leading Magazine for Information Professionals

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