On this episode of All Inclusive, Broadcast Journalist Judy Woodruff from PBS Newshour joins Jay to discuss her remarkable career in journalism, journalism during Covid-19, and her work in inclusion.
Jay Ruderman (00:05):
Many of us watch the news every day, we have a favorite show or host that we like to watch. Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive.
Speaker 2 (00:21):
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:32):
Our guest today is one of the most recognized and respected journalists in America, Judy Woodruff, who is currently the Anchor and Managing Editor for the PBS NewsHour. Judy, thanks for joining us on All Inclusive today. How are you and your family doing during this time of pandemic?
Judy Woodruff (00:50):
Thank you, Jay. As we sit here in the last days of the month of May, I have to say, we are thankfully doing well. We’re split up a little bit. Al and I, my husband, Allen and I are living in our home in Washington and thankfully we’ve been able to stay healthy and safe. One of our children, Ben, has been living with us and he’s healthy. Our son, Jeff, our older son, child, who has a number of disabilities and who lives with a program and actually lives in a group home of three adults and a supportive staff, they have all stayed healthy, the program is doing really well. So we have a lot to be grateful for and everybody’s healthy, and I hope you are too
Jay Ruderman (01:30):
Well, thank you. First of all, I want to start by sending you my condolences on some of your colleagues who have passed recently over the past few years, Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer, I know how much of a personal loss that was for you and a professional loss for PBS NewsHour, so please accept my condolences on their passing.
Judy Woodruff (01:51):
Thank you very much.
Jay Ruderman (01:51):
So what is it like for a leading journalist to cover the news of Washington and the world during a time of pandemic?
Judy Woodruff (02:02):
Well, it’s been overwhelming. We were taken by surprise, just like everyone else, and we had to adjust very quickly when it became clear that we would need to work remotely. It’s not something we’re used to doing, we are used to broadcasting the NewsHour Monday through Friday from our studio in Arlington, Virginia, but we had to, on a dime, begin to put the apparatus in place for people to report remotely.
Judy Woodruff (02:30):
I continued to anchor from the studio from about the middle of March till the middle of April, during which time I had these remarkable colleagues set up a studio, in essence, well it’s a studio here in my home, just about 15 feet from where I’m sitting, maybe 20. We put up a camera, television monitors, computer screens, lights, wires, more computer screens, it’s really quite something. And I went on the air from home starting on April the 20th, have been anchoring from here every night since then. It’s a reminder of just what we’re capable of doing these days. So it’s been both an incredibly sobering time, but it’s also been a time of learning and expanded understanding of what we are capable of doing, and frankly, what the American people are capable of doing.
Jay Ruderman (03:17):
So, you have had a very interesting background growing up, you were an army brat, you moved around a lot. Can you tell us what that experience was like and how it led you into journalism?
Judy Woodruff (03:31):
Well, it’s interesting because I didn’t know for the longest time what I wanted to do. You’re right, I grew up as an army brat, I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, father in the military and the army. We lived in Germany, we lived back in the U.S. for a while in Missouri and New Jersey, eventually went and moved to Augusta, Georgia where I finished high school. I knew I wanted a career, my mother had not even been able to finish high school herself, neither one of my parents had gone to college. And my mother in particular urged me to get an education to… Her mantra was, “Diapers and dishes can wait.” I started out studying math because I really liked math. And then ran into a couple of professors who didn’t think women should be taking advanced math, and simultaneously was studying political science, fell in love with politics and government, and so ended up majoring in political science.
Judy Woodruff (04:20):
Thought I would work in Washington, worked here for a couple of summers for my congressmen. Really wanted to work in Washington, but it was at the late 1960’s at a time when women were, again, not very welcomed in politics or government and I was advised by others not to come back to D.C. So my senior year in college, I went to a professor for advice and he said, “Well, did you ever think about covering politics?” So it was almost as serendipitous as that. I thought, “Wow, covering politics,” and I started looking for a job, as I graduated and was hired as a newsroom secretary for an ABC affiliate in Atlanta. And that was my first job out of college and did that for a year and a half, ended up doing the weekend weather while I was a secretary at the station in their newsroom because the news director told me, “If you don’t apply for a job doing weekend weather, we won’t know whether you can ever be a reporter.” And I was persuaded, I needed to do it, so it was like Cinderella, Jay.
Judy Woodruff (05:19):
During the week I was a secretary and on the weekends, I put on an appropriate dress and wore that on Sunday nights to do the weather at 11:00 PM. But then back to the, answering the phone and cleaning the film Monday through Friday. It was a way to learn, and whenever I would pester the news director to let me go out and cover a story, or learn to cover a story, his answer was, “Why would you want to do that? We already have a woman reporter.” I eventually was hired by another station in Atlanta, the CBS affiliate was hired to cover the Georgia state legislature. And that’s where I really, I truly cut my teeth as a reporter and learned to, fell in love with covering politics and covering politicians and understanding how to report on legislation and policy. But it was a long climb because it was the ’60s… By then it was the ’70s and women were being given more opportunities, thankfully, but it was a long climb.
Jay Ruderman (06:12):
And how did your family, your parents, feel about you going into journalism? Were they happy with that career path?
Judy Woodruff (06:19):
They really were just, I would say my mother in particular just wanted me to find a career that made me happy, where I could put my abilities to use and advance. She really wanted me to figure out what I wanted to do and then to pursue that, so she was glad with whatever. I think they were proud.
Jay Ruderman (06:38):
I’m sure they were. Your interests in politics, I know that at that time there were few women in politics. Do you ever think about getting into politics yourself?
Judy Woodruff (06:50):
No. When I worked on Capitol Hill, I was young, I was in college, I was just beginning to understand, frankly, the world around me. My parents, they were not people who followed the news very much. We didn’t subscribe to a newspaper, I think we subscribed to the Augusta Chronicle, but we were not a news consuming family. So that was something that I learned as I grew up, and I would say that as I followed politics, fell in love with it, I really never thought of myself as running for office.
Jay Ruderman (07:19):
So throughout your career, you’ve covered many, many administrations, thousands of members of Congress, I got to know you before the 2016 election, but over these past three years, Washington and the national politics has changed. How has that affected you in your job and covering politics and just the atmosphere in Washington?
Judy Woodruff (07:43):
It’s become, it was already a polarized place. And in fact, I mean, I’ve been covering national politics going back to the 1970’s. I covered Jimmy Carter’s campaign for president against Gerald Ford, I was a brand new reporter then, but sure, the parties fight it out, they have their ideas, it can get really rough and ugly at times. But I think we have gotten to the point now, and even before 2016, where you saw the kind of attack campaigns, if you will. I mean, I remember the birther campaign against President Obama, the kinds of… And it does go both ways, but it just has gotten uglier and uglier. And then in the last three and a half years, I would say since 2016, it’s even more so. We are in a completely polarized environment, and people often ask me, “How do you make it better?” I think perhaps the great silent majority rise up and say, “I can’t stand this anymore,” and, “We need to find ways to work together.” But right now you don’t see anything like that.
Jay Ruderman (08:45):
So heading into the 2020 election, how do you see this unfolding, especially with COVID-19, with the pandemic upon us, it doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon. How will that change our politics?
Judy Woodruff (08:59):
I think handling the pandemic, handling COVID-19, is almost certainly going to be the defining issue of this election. President Trump’s handling of this, his administration handling of it, is going to become a central feature of the campaign. It’s not the only thing, people feel that their jobs are coming back. Do they feel their retirement income is secure? How worried are they about taxes? And I think all of those things are going to be discussed. It’s going to be ugly, hopefully there’ll be some substance as well.
Jay Ruderman (09:34):
Is there any concern on your part that we could reach an election in November of 2020, and either not have a clear result or not have either of the party accept the election for various reasons? Because of COVID-19 showing up at the polls, mail in ballots, and everything that’s being discussed right now.
Judy Woodruff (09:57):
I think all of those are very serious concerns. As you know, there’s a push on the part of many Democrats right now to ensure that mail in ballots are available in November, you’re already seeing that with primary elections coming up. But at this point, President Trump is himself, is arguing against mail in, he’s warning that it holds the potential for great fraud, despite the fact that there’s been no evidence of fraud on any measurable scale anywhere in the country. So I think that’s going to be an issue and I think questioning election results, we American people now know that one candidate can win the popular vote, but the other candidate can win the electoral vote. So just a matter of a few thousand votes in a few states as we saw in 2016, can make all the difference.
Jay Ruderman (10:44):
Do you think that the level of discourse in our country, which may be shaped by our political discourse and has reached sort of a very low level of attacking individuals for various things, from their physical appearance to all sorts of other things, will we ever return as a society to a more balanced, respectful public discourse? Or do you think that what we’ve experienced over the last three plus years will affect us going forward?
Judy Woodruff (11:16):
I think, because so much of this depends on the example set by our leaders, if we have leaders who model respectful discourse and who model respectful conversation and exchange, if we have leaders who model that, kind of a respectful demeanor, I think that could go a long way toward effecting the American people. But without that, I don’t see how we turn it. So, unless we take it upon ourselves to say, “That’s not acceptable,” and I think we do that inside our families, we try to teach our children to have the values that we think are the most important values of compassion and respect and honesty and integrity. And my hope is that those will override some of these other more negative values that we see being demonstrated in public life.
Jay Ruderman (12:06):
So is it that much harder to be a journalist today? I mean, I watch many of the press conferences that either go on in Congress or in the administration, and often there is attacks on journalists themselves for simply asking questions. To me, it seems like it’s a very difficult position these days to be in.
Judy Woodruff (12:25):
And actually repeated attacks on my colleague, Yamiche Alcindor who covers the White House for the NewsHour. She’s been personally criticized, the president has called her questions, “Dumb,” he’s used various adjectives to describe her questions and to describe her, and many other journalists as well. It is the case that it is tougher to be a reporter today, no matter whether you work in television or print, because the very essence of what you do is being challenged by people in charge. They are challenging your line of questioning, your right to ask challenging probing questions, and now I think much of the American public, if you look at the public opinion polls, now has accepted that. They don’t agree with the press. They don’t like the fact that the press is asking tough questions.
Judy Woodruff (13:16):
It’s not the role of the press to be liked, it’s the role of the press to cover what’s going on and to do it in a fair way, not a cynical way, but to be skeptical, to always look for the facts. That’s what our job is. And to be held accountable ourselves, and when we make mistakes, we should be called to account for that. We shouldn’t be excused for getting it wrong ever, and we shouldn’t ever make mistakes. My message, Jay, to my colleagues has been and continues to be, our job is to cover the news, keep our head down, but to be the eyes and ears to the American people. That’s what we’re here to do to, to ask the questions they would ask, to do the kind of deep reporting they would want us to do, and to hold public officials accountable.
Jay Ruderman (13:57):
What do you think about this whole thing of fake news? I mean, this is something that’s sort of emerged, I mean, a little bit with Nixon, rallying against different news sources, but we hear a lot about fake news. You’re fake news. How does that impact the whole role of journalism and people accepting journalism as non partial?
Judy Woodruff (14:19):
I think we have to be careful about the term because I mean, President Trump uses the term fake news for news that he hasn’t liked in particular, news that he thinks is unfairly critical of him. I mean, I think we have to be careful about that term, which he uses and then what may be legitimately a false story. I mean, some news organization got hold of something that couldn’t be born out by facts and they’ve run with it. False news, who would ever support false news? Of course not. Our job is to tell the truth, to try to get the facts. Truth is a much more elusive thing, you may not know on any given day what the ultimate truth is, but you could keep working at getting at the facts.
Judy Woodruff (15:01):
But I think, so we fight against anything that’s false, but fake as a label, I think we have to be careful. I certainly don’t ascribe to what either the president or some others have said when they just blanket, in a blanket way, labeled an entire news organization, fake news. We just have to keep on keeping on and remind ourselves what really matters here, and that is the American people.
Speaker 2 (15:30):
You’re listening to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more, view the show notes and transcripts at rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you are listening.
Jay Ruderman (15:47):
You’ve covered many national debates, are there any particular incidents that stick out in your mind as particularly memorable?
Judy Woodruff (15:55):
I have to say, looking back historically Jay, the debate that I moderated in 1988 when I was just a child, I was actually with the NewsHour and I was asked to moderate a vice presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. So it was Michael Dukakis’ vice presidential running mate, Bentsen and George H.W. Bush’s vice presidential running mate, Senator Dan Quayle. And the famous line, of course, from that debate was when Dan Quayle looked at Senator Bentsen and answering the question and said, “Senator, I’m like John Kennedy because,” trying to say, “he was young, I’m young, and he knew a lot and I know a lot,” and Bentsen’s answer was, “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy, you’re no Jack.”
Jay Ruderman (16:40):
I remember that well.
Judy Woodruff (16:41):
Yeah, but of course what happened after that, that we all thought at that debate that Bentsen had knocked it out of the park, but of course he and Dukakis lost to Bush and Quayle. You never know whether what happens in a debate is going to decide an election and often it hasn’t.
Jay Ruderman (16:56):
Sure. What about some of the major news events that you’ve covered over your long career, whether it be 9/11 or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or presidential elections, is there a particular story that sticks out to you that you just carry with you? Is something that’s very poignant to you?
Judy Woodruff (17:17):
The moment that was the most searing, I guess, was I was there as part of the press pool the day John Hinckley shot President Reagan. I was there at the Washington Hilton Hotel, just a few feet away on the other side of the president’s car, and we didn’t know at that moment that President Reagan had been hit. And this was 1981, so there were no cell phones then and we all had to run to a telephone to report. But that’s, no question, that was the most searing for me because I was right there as an attempt was made on the life of a president.
Judy Woodruff (17:49):
But I have to say, covering 9/11, I was with CNN then, and I was anchoring our coverage out of Washington at the same time it was being anchored out of New York. And just watching the towers come down and knowing what it represented, I think that was the closest I ever came to falling apart on the air. I’ve covered a lot of tragedy on the air, everything from the happiest moments to certainly the worst moments in people’s lives, but knowing what that meant and knowing just the fright that we all still felt, because we didn’t know what had happened or why it had happened. That was very difficult. It was hard. I mean, it was a horror. It was awful.
Judy Woodruff (18:29):
Having said all that, Jay, right now is just unspeakable. I mean, night after night, after night, since the beginning of this pandemic we’ve been covering heart-breaking stories about people losing their lives, about nursing homes, about healthcare workers unprotected. I mean, today we’re airing a story, you won’t be airing this interview today, but tonight on the news, our plan is to air a story about what caregivers are going through right now. People who are at home taking care of either ailing parents or grandparents, and these are individuals who don’t have any relief. We’ve interviewed a number of them, and tonight we’re going to interview someone from a caregivers group, just talking about what these individuals are going through.
Judy Woodruff (19:11):
So, we’re seeing how this pandemic has affected people of every background, but in particular, those who are least able to fight it. And we have a window into the lives of people, like these caregivers, who they already were dealing with a challenging situation and now it’s almost unimaginable. And at the same time, Jay, we’re covering these uplifting stories of people who are working on the front lines, the sanitation workers, the food delivery people, the people who are going to work every day in these hospitals and taking care of folks, putting themselves at risk. I mean, we’re seeing real heroes. So, I’ve never covered anything like this story and it’s what motivates me every day to get up and keep going, because the American people need to know what their fellow Americans are doing right now.
Jay Ruderman (19:59):
I didn’t realize that you were so close to the attempted assassination of President Reagan or the towers of 9/11, and especially the pandemic. How do you set it aside at night? And the other thing that I would just couple that with is social media, which is 24 hours a day. What impact does that have on journalism? Is that something that you’ve encountered, where that makes your job either easier or more difficult? But it seems like we’re at a case now where it’s very difficult to put this aside and to have a life outside of your professional life.
Judy Woodruff (20:35):
How do you set it aside is you just really don’t. I mean, I carry this around with me all the time. I am able to relate to my family and we try to find a moment on the weekends to watch something to take our minds off of it. Al is rewatching Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David to take his mind off of what we’re going through, and I’ve been watching just anything to take your mind off of this. But in the end, we’re swimming it, it’s everywhere, and we know that, and every waking moment is covering this pandemic. And so, you just accept it and you keep going because that’s what we’re dedicated to do.
Judy Woodruff (21:10):
Social media is both something that’s great fun but it’s also, I think, very painful. I mean, I see people saying things in social media, I try to stay moderately active on Twitter. So I see the good of it and I see the fact that we now can share information. I mean, it’s become a haven for journalists, it’s where we go to find out what’s going on in the world. But it also can be very mean and just painful.
Jay Ruderman (21:34):
We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act, which is the landmark legislation, civil rights legislation, for people with disabilities. What do you remember about this specific event that was signed into law by President George Bush?
Judy Woodruff (21:48):
Jay, I was covering the White House, covering Washington then. I remember we covered it, it was an important story, but it didn’t, I would say the ADA didn’t become real to me until after our son, Jeff, who was born with spina bifida. But at the age of 16 in 1998, he was injured and in way that left him profoundly disabled. And that’s when I began to have some understanding of what it is to have a disability, what it is to be part of a family, to understand that when one member of a family has a disability, the entire family is affected. And frankly, to understand that this is something that affects many more Americans than we realize.
Judy Woodruff (22:31):
I always thought I was understanding and sympathetic, but I didn’t really understand how invisible people with disabilities can be, how people just look past them or through them or around them or over them, because for whatever reason, they don’t want to deal with it or they don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to handle it. And of course, that’s only one aspect of life with a disability, but I think our society needs to do a much better job of incorporating people disabilities into life and to give them the same opportunity the rest of us want to have in life, and that is to be a contributing member of society. I think that, that is all I know my son wants. I’m committed to doing whatever I can to get that message out.
Jay Ruderman (23:18):
Yeah Judy, one in five Americans have some form of a disability and they’re the largest minority in our country, yet inclusion is a nonstop battle as you mentioned. The unemployment rate for people disabilities is much higher, and if you look at the most recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a real fear that people with disabilities will not receive the same care, such as receiving a ventilator and that a person without a disability would receive. Why do you think that in the year 2020, there’s such a disparity? And what do you think needs to happen to make our society a more equal society for people with disabilities?
Judy Woodruff (23:57):
I think there’s disparity because people with disabilities are still a minority. Their voice is not in the room when these decisions are made in terms of how to write legislation and who’s affected by that legislation. They are not there sufficiently in the halls of Congress or in the halls of the White House or governor’s offices, and those voices have to be in the room when those decisions get made, when legislation is drawn up. We need to elect more people to office with disability. We need to see more people with disability holding positions of influence in government. And we need to keep fighting the good fight from the public standpoint, from the standpoint of nonprofits, foundations, like the Ruderman Foundation, and making these arguments and holding officials accountable. It’s a never ending battle. I mean, I think of the Civil Rights movement, I think of the women’s movement to a degree, I think we have to think of the fight for disability rights in the same way.
Jay Ruderman (24:55):
You’ve interviewed so many people, thousands of people, over your career. Is there anyone that you had wished to interview, but you were never able to/
Judy Woodruff (25:01):
You mean in connection with disability or-?
Jay Ruderman (25:04):
No, just in general, in your career, was there one person that you’re like, “I really wish I had been able to interview that person.”
Judy Woodruff (25:11):
Well, there’s so many. I’ve been very lucky to interview every president since Jimmy Carter, so that, not the sitting president, not President Trump, but every president from President Carter through President Obama, and even was able to interview President Ford after he left office. There are some major figures, I mean I would love to have interviewed Pope John Paul. I mean, I have… There are figures in American life. I wish I had been around in the time of Eleanor Roosevelt to interview her, and I’m trying to think of others who changed American life or changed our understanding of the world, and frankly have made us appreciate what’s important. There are so many, I did have a chance once to interview Mother Teresa, so that was a treat from a distance, was able to talk to her.
Judy Woodruff (25:54):
And I will say this, Jay, that some of the most illuminating interviews for me have been ordinary Americans. In covering political campaigns over all these years, I found that sometimes there’s great wisdom that lies with real people, people who live normal lives and go about those lives and overcome a lot because they have to, they don’t have any choice. And so, those have turned out to me to be some of the most meaningful interviews I’ve ever conducted.
Jay Ruderman (26:20):
Yeah, my final question to you is looking into your crystal ball, there’s so many journalists throughout our nation who look up to you and you’re a mentor to them, and they aspire to your type of journalism. How do you see journalism 20 years from now?
Judy Woodruff (26:37):
Well, thank you for that. I hope if that’s the case that I can live up to setting the example every day. When I started out my career I had a producer who told me when I worked in, covered local news in Atlanta, he said, “Woodruff, you’re only as good as your last story.” So we always feel pressure every day to make sure this story, this day, this interview, is as good as it can possibly be because you’re being judged and we should be judged. We are here for the American people. Where will we be in 20 years? I think we’re going to be much more technologically advanced than we are today. I think there will always be a need for probing questions and the kind of deep journalism, investigative journalism and reporting that we have today.
Judy Woodruff (27:23):
To me, it’s hand in hand, you can’t have a democracy unless you’ve got great reporting going on. So, I think it may look different technically, technologically. People, we may be looking at our wristwatch to read an entire newspaper, or maybe we’ll have a chip implanted in our eyeglasses. I think that the delivery methods will change, I hope there are still newspapers around, but mainly I know that we will always need reporters because without reporters asking tough questions, holding people accountable, frankly, shining a light on the parts of our country and of our world that otherwise wouldn’t get attention, then we can’t advance as a human race and we can’t advance as a country, as a democracy.
Judy Woodruff (28:06):
We have to know what’s going on, we have to have information, and that’s why we rely on journalists. We can’t depend on our elected officials to do that for us. I mean, they do a lot of important things, we’re always going to need a free press. The founding fathers were right about that, that’s why they put it in the first amendment. So, we all need to support good journalism because if we don’t, it is going to get weaker and we need it to stay strong.
Jay Ruderman (28:30):
Thank you so much, Judy, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate your time. I wish you and Al and the whole family to stay safe and healthy, and thank you for all you do for our nation and the world. I appreciate your time.
Judy Woodruff (28:45):
Jay, it’s an honor to talk to you. And so, I just have to say how much I appreciate the work you and the Ruderman Foundation do every day.
Jay Ruderman (28:52):
Thank you so much.
Speaker 2 (28:58):
All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.