Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Impact of Television on Position as Leader

IFILL: When I worked for The New York Times I was covering the White House for The New York Times, as powerful a position you can have in journalism, but it wasn’t until I started appearing on television talking about the work I was doing for The New York Times on Washington Week that people started listening in a different way, started returning my phone calls, starting treating me with a different level of respect not because they think television is better than print, but because they felt they knew me after seeing me.

BOND: But it also says that they knew you because they saw you, as opposed to reading your byline and knowing just your name.

IFILL: Right.

BOND: And television made that great a difference?

IFILL: Made a huge difference. It made my job easier to do as a print reporter because people felt, whether it was correct or not, that they had a sense of who I was. Now, in television, I mean, this backfires because it’s possible to do television in a way where you’re only — you’re a mile wide and a inch deep and people don’t know very much and you don’t know very much and you can have a very successful career in television without really knowing very much, but the secret is to hit that balance.

BOND: And how do you make sure you’re hitting that balance all the time?

IFILL: You don’t all the time. You try. You listen to yourself. You police what you do and how you say it, and you try to make sure that you’re asking, you know, not the how-do-you-feel questions but the what-does-it-mean questions and that requires kind of a constant awareness of what it is that you’re saying and what you’re doing and how you’re saying it and then listening to the answers. My great fear in my interviewing is that I ask a question and someone says, “Well, and that’s when I killed my wife,” and I don’t hear it because I’m thinking of the next question. You want to really always be on and that’s harder than people think.

BOND: That’s never happened, has it?

IFILL: No. Well, not quite that, but close. Sometimes you don’t hear it. Sometimes you don’t hear.

BOND: Would you think of yourself then from this description that television had a much greater impact on returned phone calls and access that you had, and that talking to young people, you get a greater feedback from what you say than you may if you talked to adults, I’m guessing?

IFILL: Well, when Saturday Night Live did a spoof of the vice presidential debate and Queen Latifah played me, I got huge street cred with kids in a way that that The News Hour on PBS somehow didn’t always pull off, so that’s fine. I look at it as a way in, that means people will listen.