Callie House

Introducing the “Whose Facts Matter?” project

Journalism, increasingly, has become a computational profession, and that brings a new set of questions about core journalism values such as fairness, objectivity, and truth itself.  This summer, I started work on a long-form writing project that engages these questions in a novel way – through a multi-media graphic narrative. It’s still a work in […]

Aspiring journalists, stop with the “email interviews”

Whenever I give journalism students assignments that require interviews, it’s inevitable that someone will ask whether email interviews are acceptable. And invariably, my responses are: In-person, Skype, Google Hangout or telephone interviews are preferable. A text chat is better than an email exchange. If email is the only option, call it an exchange, not an […]

Practical advice for journalism students

In every journalism class I teach, I have a session or two on some practical matters that fall under the heading, “Things I wish someone had told me when I was your age.” The tips often have to do with issues I have confronted on the job that weren’t part of the curriculum or management […]

Annual book fair and authors night, National Press Club, 17 Nov. 2009. Photo: Michael Foley

Gwen Ifill: A consummate journalist who demonstrated why diversity matters

Annual book fair and authors night, National Press Club, 17 Nov. 2009. Photo: Michael Foley

There are many reasons to mourn Gwen Ifill’s untimely death today at the age of 61. She was a consummate journalist of the old school variety, who rose through the ranks of newspapers and broadcasting to occupy some of the industry’s most respected positions: co-host of the PBS Newshour and moderator of Washington Week in Review. There will be many tributes and assessments of the way she broke ground by demonstrating that there is still a place for shoe-leather reporting, tough interviewing and striving for objectivity in an industry whose desperation for ratings and clicks has raised fundamental questions about its ability to fulfill its civic responsibilities, most notably in the recent Presidential election. I want to focus on one moment that embodied her excellence, her bravery and the difference that can result when we bring diverse perspectives to our national discourse.

During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Ifill made history by becoming the first African American woman to moderate the Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and his Democratic challenger, John Edwards. Ifill asked a question that exposed a huge blind spot on the part of both candidates. As she later recalled during a September 20, 2016 “Backstory” segment for Washington Week :

At the time, I was trying to figure out, there’s only one vice presidential debate, how do I get them to talk about something that’s off their topics, something they haven’t rehearsed for, something they wouldn’t expect? And I came across a number, a statistic about African American, I mean HIV infection among African American women.  Sky-rocketing at the time.  No one was talking about this. And I prefaced my question by saying, ‘You’ve both talked about AIDS in Africa, I want to talk about about AIDS in this country.  Please don’t talk about AIDS in Africa. What would you do if you were in this administration about sky-rocketing HIV infections among African American women?’ Very specific.

Neither candidate had a good answer. A statement released by the Black AIDS Institute and Essence magazine took both men to task:

Mr. Cheney’s response to Ms. Ifill’s question was “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was that severe and epidemic there”. … The Vice President’s lack of awareness about the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in African American communities speaks volumes about the low priority our government places on the lives of African Americans. …

 

As for Edwards, Ifill later recalled,

John Edwards’ response was, ‘Well let me give you my three-point plan for AIDS in Africa.’ I found out afterward from people who prepped him for that debate that that was the question they thought I was going to give them — an AIDS in Africa question.  So he didn’t even hear the distinction.  He just, it just clicked it. It clicked in.

ACTUP, the AIDS prevention and treatment advocacy group, ran an item about the exchange, noting, “You know the chance of that issue being raised by any of the White men who are moderating the presidential face-offs is slim.”

When Ifill talked about that moment, she didn’t focus on her identity. For her, it was about considering important issues being left out of the conversation, and making them visible. She said people would still come up to her years later and say, “I loved that AIDS question.”

People remember when these candidates reveal themselves for what they are — what they don’t know and what they do know.  So I think that’s part of the moderator’s responsibility — to let the viewers at home know what these guys… are capable of.

Godspeed, Ms. Ifill. You were one of the best among us.

 

 

A personal perspective on the Trenton Makes Music project

People who know me credit me with a few talents – but musical ability isn’t one of them. Not only am I not a musician, I have no background in music journalism So, it should come as no surprise that one of the questions I’m often asked about the motivation and inspiration behind my current […]

Democratic National Convention Press Release on Accessibility

Note: This press release is a sidebar to The DNC and the politics of accessibility 2016 Democratic National Convention Announces Plans to Make this the Most Accessible Convention Ever   Unprecedented Accessibility Plan Outlines Resources for People with Disabilities, Seniors and Individuals Who Need Specific Accommodations. PHILADELPHIA – In the lead up to Convention week, the […]

The DNC and the politics of accessibility

The Democratic National Convention took place from July 25-28 in Philadelphia PA, and while everyone was focused on the protests over the nomination process, there were some conflicts over decisions made by the DNC and the local host committee. One particularly contentious local issue that got little national attention was the DNC’s and Philadelphia mayor’s deal […]

DNC 2016: The Women Caucus

At a political convention, caucuses are intended as cheerleading sessions to rally the faithful, and the Women’s Caucus sessions at the DNC were no exception. This was one of several special interest groups meetings run by the DNC during its morning and noon-time sessions, and the attendees on Tuesday morning were getting hyped as party […]

Entering the Wells Fargo Center

DNC 2016 Diary – Waiting on the world to change

  On Tuesday evening, just after the Democratic National Convention made Hillary Clinton their official nominee for President, Maria Hutchinson stood impassively next to the complimentary charging station in the hallway of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In front of her, delegates, celebrities, political figures, journalists, staff, guests and volunteers were rushing, racing, […]