For five decades, Judy Woodruff has delivered exceptional coverage of politics to the American public. In this episode, she reflects on her career highlights, her perspectives on the changing American political landscape, and raising a child with spina bifida.
Thinking has become a precious commodity.
Time to think, to reflect, to read deeply.
In a way, it's made our mission even more important
because I think the "NewsHour" stands out.
We try to be thoughtful every day,
and amid the chaos
and the maelstrom and the noise,
it's made what I do and what all of us do,
I think, more important.
Corrigan: Every day, there is the vast
and dizzying world of happenings.
And every day there is a team of mediators
who distill and summarize that world for us.
Judy Woodruff has been a legendary part of that force
since she took a job as a newsroom secretary in 1968.
Good evening. I'm Judy Woodruff.
Tonight, the life of a young schoolteacher.
And tomorrow, a discussion of the credibility
of the news media.
Corrigan: In a world of hot takes,
hers has been a voice of reason...
Woodruff: And that's the "NewsHour" for tonight.
I'm Judy Woodruff.
Corrigan: night after night on PBS for decades.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More,"
and here is my conversation with Army brat,
first generation college graduate,
and perhaps the most esteemed figure
in American media today, Judy Woodruff.
So, thanks for agreeing to be on this side of the equation.
How do you feel?
I don't like being interviewed.
I would much rather be interviewing you, Kelly,
than have you doing this.
We took away your pen at the last second.
Yeah, you made me give up my pen.
Yeah. Has anything in your long career prepared you
for the last 4 or 5 years?
No. I've covered American politics since 1970
when I was a local reporter in Atlanta
covering the Georgia legislature
and the city council.
And now begin a series of special reports
on housing discrimination in Atlanta.
And there was division then,
but nothing like what we see today
with the vitriol, the assumption that
the other party is not just wrong
and not just my adversary, but my mortal enemy.
They are people who don't even deserve to be alive.
I mean, you hear that sentiment.
I don't ever remember anything like that.
We are in a different place.
Can you trace it back?
Like, do you know what the beats
of the meta story are around this?
I trace it back in my own experience to the early 90s.
Bill Clinton had been elected president,
and a lot of Republicans felt
the presidency had been stolen.
And then in 2000,
you had this very divisive election
between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
A lot of bitterness on both sides.
You did have a brief moment
when the country came together, frankly,
during 9/11, but it only lasted, I mean,
I went back and I've looked,
it lasted about a year,
and then the partisanship started up again.
And, and then you had the Iraq War
and the divisions over that.
And then, of course, the election of Barack Obama
where Republicans started saying this man
not only doesn't deserve to be president,
he wasn't even born in the United States,
which, of course, was a lie.
And then on, and here we are today,
the rise of Donald Trump during the Obama presidency.
We are in a place that I've never seen before,
and I worry a lot about how we're going to
work our way out of it.
Trump comes down the escalator
and maybe changes America forever.
Do you think he's changed America forever?
I don't know. I can't see that far
into America's future.
Certainly changed our politics
for the next number of years.
It's one thing to be divided as a country,
but to then have a president who is feeding that division
is something we haven't seen before.
I respect people's right to have different opinions.
That's what I've done as a journalist.
We cover all sides of the story.
But what's been different
is the personalizing of politics
and the demonizing of people in public life
and even in private life.
How's the media landscape and all the sort of dispersion
of media creating a worse problem?
It's making it worse
because everybody now has a megaphone.
And on the one hand, I love the fact
that we've democratized,
small "D" democratized, our media
so that so many more people can contribute
to the reporting of what life is like
in America and around the world.
So thank God for social media, in that regard.
But from the standpoint of social media,
being a place to just blow up whatever idea you have,
whether it's been checked out or not
and just trashing other people's reputations,
I think it's done damage.
One of our other guests this season was Steve Kerr.
He's the NBA coach. Sure.
And he and you share a similar childhood
where you were moving around a lot.
You lived around--you lived in Germany and New Jersey
and Georgia and Oklahoma.
How do you that kind of background
and also being from a military family
affects the way you think about story coverage
and voices that we need to keep hearing?
Having family members in Missouri and Oklahoma,
where I was born, in Florida, now in Georgia,
where I went to high school,
having grown up riding in a pedicab
to Girl Scout meetings in Taiwan and Taichung
where we lived for two years,
living in Mannheim, Germany for 3 years
when I was in kindergarten, first, and second grade,
all of which I remember, you know, vividly,
just reminds me how big the world is
and how important it is to remember that
where you are in any moment is just one little bit
of what's going on in the world.
We have an obligation as journalists
to think about others.
I mean, I didn't even realize that at the time.
I mean, I didn't come to journalism as a career
until I was just about out of college.
I mean, it almost-- I almost fell into it.
And also you had a mom who dropped out of high school
to raise your siblings and a grandma who was a cleaner.
Are you a first generation college kid?
My mother stopped going to school after 10th grade
because her father died
and her mother was left with 5 young children.
And she took 3 jobs.
This was in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
And my mother never got the rest of her education,
never finished high school.
And so she was the one
who always said to me as I was growing up,
"You're going to get your education.
Diapers and dishes can wait."
So when you were young in the business,
you got your first job.
You were like an assistant secretary
at an affiliate somewhere.
I've went to Atlanta on my spring break from college
to interview with all 3 affiliates,
and the news director of the local station in Atlanta,
it was then the ABC station WQXI,
hired me to be the newsroom secretary.
Said, "I'll hire you" after I talked passionately
about my desire to work in journalism with my degree
in political science from Duke University.
And as I got up to leave and to thank him,
I said, "Oh, Mr. Conover, thank you so much."
And he said, "Of course," he said,
"How could I not hire somebody
with legs like yours?"
I slunk out the door.
I'll never forget going through the revolving door
to leave thinking,
"What have I just gotten myself into?"
But it was 1968. That was America then.
I had already decided not to have a career in math
because women were not treated seriously.
And then in working in Washington as an intern
hoping for a job in politics or government,
I was told women weren't going to get a job
of any consequence in politics and government.
So I turned to journalism as a last resort,
only to find, hello, women were not necessarily
treated equally there.
But hey, I stuck it out.
You sure did.
So all this time that you've been working,
you've also been mothering.
You have 3 kids.
Mm-hmm. 3 children. Yeah.
And your first was born with spina bifida.
Will you remind us what spina bifida is?
The neural tube,
which is what makes up your spinal cord,
comes down from your brain and goes all the way down
to the base of the spine.
And if there's an opening from below the neck,
it's called spina bifida.
For the longest time,
children born with this didn't survive.
But in the 1960s,
they came up with something called a shunt,
which allowed them to drain excess fluid in the brain
so that these children were able to survive.
Our son Jeffrey was born in 1981.
By that time enough doctors knew the surgery,
and they closed it at birth.
They put in a shunt when he was 15 hours old.
You must have been so scared.
It was a nightmare. It was very scary.
And then it was kind of a minor case,
but then when he was 16, he had surgery.
That's right. There was surgery
that had been scheduled to replace the shunt,
and something went terribly wrong
and Jeffrey was left
with multiple disabilities as a result.
So, today, he's in a wheelchair,
can only walk with assistance,
has compromised vision, one of his eyes is closed,
his speech is impaired,
his short-term memory is impaired,
can't use the right side of his body.
Were you angry?
Sad and angry and everything you can imagine.
You know, it's the worst thing
a parent can ever, ever experience.
It changed our whole family.
I thought about quitting my work.
But we had met a doctor at Johns Hopkins.
He said, "Look, there's only so much
"you're going to be able to do for the rest of his life.
"You're going to serve him much more
"if you can continue to do the work that you do
and be available to him when you can."
And I've been thankful for that advice.
A person could become dreadfully bitter
when a mistake has been made, when it's not just bad luck.
Was it hard to get back into a positive space?
It took time. It took time.
I mean, I cried every single day,
I think for two years.
I would cry in my car on the way to work
or on the way home.
But eventually I took my spirit
from Jeff himself, my son.
He kept going. He wasn't bitter.
He isn't bitter today.
He knows exactly what happened to him.
And the fact is there's really no alternative.
I mean you keep going, and you make a life
for yourself and for your child
or you don't, and that's not an option.
The latter is not an option for us.
I mean, we were going to do everything we could
to help make sure his life
was as full as it could possibly be.
You know, we are grateful for every day that he has.
We have a thing at "Tell Me More" called Plus One,
where we like to remind everybody
that nobody gets anywhere by themselves,
and that we're all affecting each other
in such important ways.
And you picked Godfrey Oakley.
Tell us about Dr. Oakley.
I did, because when Jeffrey was young
and I was doing everything I could to understand
how to raise a child with spina bifida,
I went to national conferences
put on by the Spina Bifida Association.
Lo and behold, this man speaking was the head
of the birth defects section
at the Centers for Disease Control,
Dr. Godfrey Oakley.
So I went up to him and I introduced myself,
and I just grilled him.
I had a million questions for him.
This is a man who has devoted himself
to doing everything he could to understanding
the causes of spina bifida
and who was a big part of understanding
that what causes so much of it is a lack of nutrients,
so called folic acid deficiency.
Women in America are now used to being told,
"Think about folic acid.
Are you taking your vitamins yet?"
Godfrey Oakley is largely responsible for
making sure that the Food and Drug Administration
mandated folic acid in our diet.
And he's now working on that for the entire world.
He's made personally, single-handedly
made an enormous difference.
We interviewed Dr. Oakley,
and we wanted to share with you a few of the things
he had to say about you.
I'm a pediatrician
and a geneticist and an epidemiologist,
and my job has always been to prevent birth defects.
Probably, the highlight of my professional career
was at 5:00 on June the 24th, 1991
when now Sir Nicholas Wall call me to tell me
that the randomized control trial that he and his team
had conducted to see if a vitamin
would prevent spina bifida had been called off early
because it was such a successful study.
And I knew at that moment that if we could get every woman
in the world to consume enough folic acid
to have blood folate levels that were high enough,
there would be no more children
born with folic acid preventable spina bifida.
I feel my job is to be a science-based advocate
that can translate the science that I know so well
so that people who want to do good for people
can see what an enormous opportunity
this is to prevent child death.
You know, I'm not exactly sure when I first met Judy.
I'd asked her if she would work with me
and another pediatrician to make a teaching cassette,
in those days, they were cassettes, for pediatricians,
and she agreed to do that.
And so we started the program talking about
what spina bifida is
and what some of the new treatments are.
And I said, "Well, now let's move to prevention."
And I remember Judy saying just as clearly as the day,
"Gentlemen, you don't get it."
And I'm thinking to myself,
"What do you mean, we don't get it?
We're experts in spina bifida."
She said, "You don't know what it's like
to send your child to the first grade in diapers."
Judy and Al have always spent a lot of their energy
trying to support the organization
and do other things that would increase the likelihood
that all people would have the care that they are able
to afford to give to their son.
They are just a terrific couple,
and I've enjoyed getting to know and work with Judy,
and I appreciate the opportunity
that she and Kelly have given me
to tell the story of how we can make this birth defect go away.
And there you have it.
I mean, he has been at the center of it.
And I remember that story, because here are
these two extraordinary scientists,
and they're focused on what can we do
to make sure we don't have babies
being born with this issue?
And I said, "Yes, and we still need to think about
the ones who are among us who are going to school."
And Jeffrey--one of the most common conditions
of spina bifida is bladder and bowel incontinence.
Jeffrey Hunt had to learn to catheterize himself
when he was 5 years old.
Wow. It wasn't always perfect.
And so there were days
when he still had to wear a diaper
to school when he was in first grade.
When your child is embarrassed or humiliated...
I mean, there's just, there's no words.
And so I wanted them to think about that,
and I wanted them to think about
what these children face.
So one of the things that you said is that people
with disabilities are often invisible,
that a thing you've noticed with Jeffrey is
that we can't even make eye contact.
I'm with Jeffrey, who's in a wheelchair,
and people don't--either don't look at him,
and I figure if they're doing it for Jeff
when I'm with him, then they--
then I just think about the many, many others
who have some kind of a disability,
some kind of something that makes them different,
and they're not treated like whole people.
It's not right.
Tell me about your other kids.
Benjamin is our 35 year old,
who is interested in American politics
after years of telling us he had no interest in politics.
And then our daughter is adopted from South Korea,
and she is today a social worker.
Wow. How did you decide to adopt?
We decided we wanted an international family.
We had several friends who had adopted,
and, lo and behold, there she was.
So your background makes you sort of uniquely qualified
to talk to us about what's happening in the world
and also how we talk about and understand
what's happening in the world,
like the facts of the day vs. the story of the day.
So I thought it might be interesting
just to now off the top,
what are 3 adjectives you would use to describe
the country at this moment?
On edge, worried, and hopeful.
I think it's in the American psyche
to be hopeful even in the face of adversity.
But this COVID pandemic has shaken us to our core,
many of us, most of us.
It's been, and it is, a frightening time
for this country.
More frightening than what you've seen
in your esteemed career?
I would say yes.
I've never covered an incident, a moment,
that affected as many people as this has.
We've covered, you know, economic collapse,
but this is one where it's not just losing your job,
it's your life and your livelihood that's at stake.
You're worried about yourself.
You're worried about your parents.
You're worried about your children.
It's swallowed us up in a way.
And I've never seen anything like it.
There was a time during the pandemic
where there was a terrible run on
toilet paper and cleaning supplies,
and it felt like a dog-eat-dog world.
And you made a direct appeal on camera,
eyeball to eyeball with your viewers.
Was that your decision?
It was. I had gone by the grocery store that morning.
And I had seen people standing there
not able to buy just basic things,
And then of course, there were more reports
through the day of people were hoarding
and running into grocery stores
and buying up everything they could find.
And it just felt like the right time to say something.
This is a moment for Americans to show our best qualities.
We're going to work our way through this.
Let's keep others who may not be as strong and resilient
as we are in mind, too.
Our best qualities are looking out for each other,
and many Americans have done that.
When you think about the people who have
looked after their neighbors,
who have delivered food, our first responders.
Remember early in the pandemic
when people were at home and suddenly very, very sick,
and our first responders were there
putting themselves at risk,
and many of them got sick, some of them died.
There you are on air talking about these horrific moments.
How do you think about composure and emotion
and what you owe your viewers?
It's not something that's easy for me to talk about
because I'm not sure I even understand how it happens.
What I know, though, is that we have to share
with our audience, with the American people,
what's going on even in the worst circumstances,
in the worst of stories.
You know, for many, many Fridays,
we had a segment called In Memoriam,
where we remembered 5 extraordinary
ordinary Americans who had lost their lives to COVID.
I don't think I came out of single one of those segments
not on the verge of tears.
There was one who was a young mother
who didn't even live to see her baby
who she just given birth to.
Every one of these shouldn't have died.
When you decide how to report on that,
do you feel yourself needing to punctuate it
with positive stories, stories of inspirations?
We do. And it's also part of what we do at the "NewsHour."
We want to hold up a mirror to the country.
You can't fully do that
in a one-hour newscast every night,
but We want to show that amidst all the grief
and the worry and the fear
that good things are happening,
babies are being born,
birthdays are being celebrated, anniversaries.
So we want to tell those positive stories
of people overcoming at the same time
we are holding up that mirror and showing them
all the terrible things that are happening too.
Another time when you had to be on air
where I was just astonished at your composure
was when Gwen Ifill died.
Our lead tonight is news that we hoped
we would never have to report.
Our managing editor, my co-anchor, and dear friend
Gwen Ifill died earlier today
after an almost year-long battle with cancer.
I think your job is so consequential.
It must have been awfully nice to do that
with someone like Gwen Ifill.
She was a force of nature,
One of the most fun people I've ever known,
one of the most brilliant, a woman of great courage.
I mean, to make her way as a journalist
as a Black woman, she stood up time and again
to doubters and worse,
and was just a fierce advocate for telling the truth,
for getting the story,
not afraid to ask the toughest questions.
Because when we talk about race in this country,
we always talk about African-Americans,
people of color.
I want to talk to you about white people.
Woodruff: I learned a lot from her.
She was my partner.
I mean, she always said, you know, I've got your back,
and I know you've got mine.
And the other thing is that early on we decided,
you know, they're going to be a lot of people
out there who think, "Oh, two women.
They're not going to get along with each other."
I know. They love that that narrative.
They're gonna get in this competition.
But we decided we were just not going to let that happen.
We were going to stay so close.
And so when we lost her way too early,
she was 61 years old, it's a huge blow,
It was a blow to all of us at the "NewsHour."
We miss her every day.
You have these moments sometimes where I think,
"God, she is doing this perfect setup."
So there was a day early in Trump's presidency
where he and then former Vice President Joe Biden
were exchanging barbs about what they would do
if they saw each other in the schoolyard.
President Trump traded fresh insults today
with former Vice President Joe Biden.
And at the very end of that story,
you give this perfect deadpan Weekend Update delivery.
The President is 71, former Vice President Biden is 75.
Do you remember? Yes.
And that was several years ago.
And they're still at it in a way.
So, where do you find hope on this count?
Like, what needs to be done?
For the longest time, I've been saying
it's got to come from the younger generation.
These young people who have grown up
who are in their teens and twenties,
they must be looking at this
and thinking, "I can do better."
There's a way for people to work together
to address the problems that face all of us
as a society, as a country, as Americans,
whether it's the environment,
whether it's health care, whether it's poverty,
There's got to be a way to work together
than just this civil war.
I'm putting my chips, you know--
On the kids. On the kids.
How has cable news and also the internet changed
the work that you do here in public media?
It's changed it in the deadlines are constant.
They're every minute, every second a deadline.
We have to be open to changing it
right up until we go on the air,
and even during the show.
Thinking has become a precious commodity.
Time to think, to reflect, to read deeply, in a way,
it's made our mission even more important.
We try to be thoughtful every day
and amid the chaos and the maelstrom and the noise.
It's made what I do and what all of us do,
I think, more important.
Your reputation is that
you're the hardest-working woman in the news.
Can you imagine retiring?
I cannot imagine it.
I'm sure it will happen someday
because I'm not going to be anchoring the "NewsHour"
into my nineties, but I do, I mean, I'll be working.
I'll be reporting, I'll be writing.
I hope to stay active promoting disabilities.
There's a lot of volunteer work I want to do.
I want to work with women journalists.
I'm going to be working, busy,
you know, doing the things that that count.
This is our speed round. Are you ready?
I think so.
If your high school did superlatives,
what would you have been most likely to become?
Oh, yikes, probably overcommitted.
I joined every club. I tried to do everything.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Milk or dark? Both.
You know, I've tried to switch,
knowing dark is the healthier,
but it's really hard. I love milk chocolate.
Who was the last person to make you laugh really hard?
My grandson, my 3-year-old grandson.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
This too shall pass.
When was last time you cried?
Just a few days ago.
I was on the phone with Jeffrey.
I was busy, and he called me,
and I said, "What did you need?
What did you need? What's going on?"
"Mom, I just want you to know I support you
"and I want you to know
I hope the show goes well tonight."
And I just burst into tears.
If your mother wrote a book about you,
what would it be called?
"Hold Your Shoulders Straight."
Mine, too. Mine, too.
And I haven't done it all these years.
What was your first concert?
Rock on, Judy Woodruff.
Augusta. He's from Augusta.
Uh-huh. Most satisfying donation or volunteer gig?
It has to be the IWMF,
the International Women's Media Foundation.
If you could say 4 words to anyone,
who would you address and what would you say?
To every politician, elected official,
I would say, "tell us the truth".