Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership in Journalism: Seeing Beyond Race

BOND: And are you’re thinking when you’re asking these questions, or thinking about the questions you’re going to ask, that you’re asking them for other people who’re not there, who can’t sit there where you sit?

IFILL: Absolutely. Absolutely. It would just be an ego trip if I thought I was asking them for myself. I’ve moderated two vice presidential debates and in both cases, I entered the question preparation process thinking very carefully about what can I bring to this that will make people at home say, “Oh, I didn’t know that or that will inform my understanding about the vote I cast.” It’s not about — if it were about me, that I’d ask a smart question and kind of preen and chase them around the table, “Why didn’t you answer my question, Mr. Senator?” That doesn’t really add anything to the conversation. In fact, it detracts because it makes me the story. I’m much more interested if someone at home says, “Oh, that’s something I hadn’t thought of.” That’s why I’m asking questions.

BOND: Are there times when you’re covering a story where you feel you are personally involved? What about Boston school desegregation problems which certainly involved people of color? Did you feel that you had to maintain a distance?

IFILL: You know, I don’t remember feeling that. It was really interesting covering the Boston schools because in Boston in the 1970s, you could easily feel personally threatened by any situation that you were in, no matter what color you were. If you just crossed the wrong bridge, you [would be in] the wrong area of town, but I found it was a test for me to talk to people who I had nothing in common with whatsoever, members of the Boston School Committee who were adamantly against busing and would’ve, if given the chance, denied me every opportunity I’d ever had in education, but I wanted to hear what they had to say, to my face. I wanted to see how would they relate to me and I found out so often that they related to me perfectly fine, that the anti- was against a general idea of something, not against me personally, so I was almost always able to separate out my sense of who I was. Now, I don’t know if they were, but I was, from what it was that I thought they believed.

I covered Pat Robertson when he ran for president in 1988, my first campaign, and I remember thinking at the time, "Oh, I don’t know, I’ve heard all these things about Pat Robertson — is he going to be hostile to me?" Not only was he not hostile, but more important, the people who attended his rallies were not hostile. They were welcoming. They wanted to tell you what they thought and why they thought it.

Now, if I’d walked in to those rallies saying, “Oh, they’re going to hate me because I’m black,” I wouldn’t have heard what they were saying. In fact, they would offer me a chair and ask me — and they reminded me as much of people I saw at Jesse Jackson rallies. There were people who didn’t feel anyone listened to them and if you suggested you wanted to listen, they were perfectly welcoming, so it taught me — those early experiences — taught me that the wider understanding I brought to the story, the more likely I was to hear something I hadn’t thought of before and that people were not going to knee-jerk reject me just because of who I looked like.