PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill speaks at Medill

Patrick Svitek

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Gwen Ifill doesn’t fault college students for flocking to Comedy Central for their primary source of news – but she claims to deserve some credit.

“Even he doesn’t say he’s a journalist,” she said. “Jon Stewart gets his news from me.”

The remark was one of several resulting in widespread laughter yesterday evening at the McCormick Tribune Center, where more than 160 journalism students and community members gathered to hear the senior correspondent of “The PBS NewsHour” discuss the direction of modern media. The nearly hourlong event – this year’s Minow Lecture in Communications – was followed by a Q-and-A section, during which topics ranging from the Tea Party to “Saturday Night Live” were addressed.

Ifill’s disputed role in the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate was repeatedly broached. During the previous election cycle, conservative pundits questioned her objectivity as the debate moderator in light of a book about black voting trends she had recently authored.

“This was gaming the ref,” Ifill said, when asked whether her skin color contributed to the criticism. “To say it was racism (would be to say) it’s about me. It’s not about me.”

She also urged aspiring reporters to embrace increasingly opinionated news outlets but recognize their heavier emphasis on entertainment value.

“Our jobs as journalists is to provide the best information possible and let you make up your mind, not make up your mind for you,” Ifill said. She reiterated the same message of viewer responsibility throughout the lecture, explaining that news consumers’ “eyes have to be open wider.”

Both University President Morton Schapiro and Newton Minow, the lecture series’ cofounder and the Walter Annenberg Professor Emeritus, were in attendance. Schapiro was originally introduced to Ifill through her brother, Roberto, while teaching economics at Williams College in 1983.

“She’s just fantastic,” Schapiro said. “She’s an absolute superstar.”

Minow was equally complimentary of Ifill prior to the event, deeming her “one of the nation’s most respected journalists” in an e-mail.

“She knows the difference between noise and news,” he wrote.

Audience members were especially receptive of Ifill’s commentary, buzzing in agreement on her take on present-day politics and satirical discourse. When an attendee scoffed at Ifill’s passing reference of Republicans’ coining the term “Obamacare,” Ifill jokingly replied, “Oh, is that the type of crowd we’re going to have here today?”

Peter Stein, a Communication freshman, agreed that Ifill’s ability to engage listeners was exceptional.

“I thought she was a very impressive speaker,” he said. “She was extremely charismatic and had a lot to offer in terms of perspective.”

Chicago retiree Bill McGraw, 69, additionally praised Ifill’s “insightful” and “dynamic” speech. He said she managed to cover the vast breadth of journalism’s current state, which was a recurring topic in audience questions. Earlier in the event, a Medill sophomore asked what pratfalls Ifill recommended avoiding while seeking a job in the media.

The subsequent response elicited not-so-subtle grins from journalism professors seated among the audience.

“Why would you want to avoid mistakes?” Ifill said. “That’s the best part of the whole thing.”

– patricksvitek2014@u.northwestern.edu, contributing writer