How the PBS NewsHour co-anchor and Managing Editor of Washington Week helped a young, political journalist dream big
It was my second week in the PBS NewsHour newsroom. I was tasked with filming Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and political editor Christina Bellantoni for the Political Checklist, a weekly online segment the politics team created for its website to capture the highlights of the week in campaigning during the 2012 election season.
Having run around D.C. the past few years as a Capital Hill reporter, web developer, video producer and production assistant for documentary filmmakers, I was accustomed to being thrown into new storytelling situations, but this time I was very uncertain. Most of my colleagues on the politics team had spent those same years climbing the ladder at NewsHour from desk assistant to producer. Even as I had visions since high school of becoming a journalist, working in television news was never my goal.
When I applied for and was offered a one-year post aimed at helping the venerable broadcast show enhance its online and digital coverage it seemed be a great opportunity to flex my eclectic mix of print and digital media skills. But more importantly, it was finally a chance, I hoped, to work with Gwen Ifill, who always offered me a welcoming smile the few times we crossed paths while I hustled for work around the nation’s capital.
So while getting Gwen, Judy and Christina into their microphones, one side of my brain told jokes while the other went through a mental checklist of video production. Nonetheless, I made a fatal error. With no headphones immediately in sight, and not wanting to waste their time retrieving a pair, and I decided to wing it. About three minutes into filming the five-minute segment, I noticed that the audio level in the camera wasn’t moving. I knew what that meant. The Sony EX-3 wasn’t set to capture sound from the external lavs.
With a burning sensation in my chest, I let Gwen finish her remark. For a split second I thought of letting them continue with the next remark and later seeing if the camera’s internal microphone picked up the sound. But I knew that wouldn’t work.
As calmly as possible I said, “Thanks ladies. That was great. Would you mind doing that question again.” I was bracing for everything from a lot of questions to an outright rejection of the idea. But to my surprise Gwen said, “Sure. Should we start from the top.” I said, “Yeah, That’s a good idea. Let’s start from the top, if you don’t mind.” I made the correction on the camera. The ladies started from the top. We finished. I held my breath while I connected the camera to the computer. It was only after seeing the footage and audio were good that I exhaled with relief.
That same week I was asked to participate in the huddle between Gwen and the show producers on a broadcast segment. A good NewsHour segment involves finding guests on opposites of an issue that not only know the topic but also are good on camera and can go the distance of an 8-minute discussion on a policy issue.
Not wanting to look stupid, I kept silent as names were cast about. Finally a familiar voice blurted out a name. To my surprise it was me. Gwen turned in my direction smiled and said “Yes, I like that idea.” She told me to call the guest, see if he was available to come to the studio that night and conduct a pre-interview. A few hours later the guest was in the studio and on the air with Gwen. On her way back upstairs after the show, Gwen popped her head into my cubicle and said. “Thank you. That was good.” Over the years I’ve run into some naysayers, but recalling those few words have helped me persevere.
Tasked to the digital side of the operation during my year on the PBS NewsHour politics team, I never became part of Gwen’s regular circle of producers. Even though I learned we were both fond of Sting, we never became besties or even met for a one-on-one lunch. But it was always a thrill to walk by her office and exchange hellos and small talk.
In many of the previous newsrooms I’d worked, black and brown women were more often members of the support staff or the cleaning staff– rarely leading the editorial staff. So it was an honor and a treat to work for Gwen – a crossover media professional like myself – and to entertain the idea that with hard work and a little good fortune, I someday might achieve a similar measure of success.
Gwen Ifill died Monday at the age of 61 due to complications related to cancer. She remains one of the most respected names in public affairs journalism. But during my stint at the PBS Newshour, she was much more. She taught me how to dream big.
Cassie Chew is a print and digital news content creator who lives to produce compelling, educational and engaging content for audiences across multiple platforms.