Growing up as an Army brat traveling the world, Judy Woodruff was naturally drawn to the world of public issues and events, she said here Monday.
Woodruff, anchor and managing editor for the “PBS News Hour,” also said that her mother, who never finished high school, sparked her lifelong interest in education.
“What I heard the entire time I was growing up,” she said, “was, ‘Get your education. Get your education.’”
Woodruff answered questions for more than an hour Monday evening in Petro Theatre at Montana State University Billings. She took questions from a crowd of several hundred people after a half-hour interview by Brian Kahn, host of “Home Ground” on public radio in Montana.
She also spoke at a noon luncheon in the Billings Public Library’s Royal Johnson Community Room, where she told an audience of about 120 people that these are challenging times for the news media.
As print newspapers get smaller — in terms of reporters and column inches — and as journalists come under attack as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” Woodruff said, “we are being called on to do our job better than we’ve ever done it.”
Fortunately, she said, some news organizations are up to the challenge, and “some of the finest journalism I’ve ever seen” is being produced today.
The evening discussion also was generally upbeat, despite the obvious difficulties facing the news business nationwide. In response to a question from a 12-year-old student journalist, Woodruff said that good journalists always will be in demand, even if it is not yet clear what form journalism will take.
“We need you,” she told the 12-year-old, drawing applause from a friendly audience.
Woodruff noted that she was a pioneer among women in the news business, breaking in in 1976, a time when women journalists were rare.
“I was a pioneer, for sure,” she said. “I don’t go back to the covered wagons, but sometimes I feel like I go back that far.”
She said that the number of women TV anchors surpassed the number of male anchors a few years ago, but even that could be an artifact of lingering sexism. Male anchors are allowed to keep their jobs well into middle age, she said, while the demand is constantly for younger female anchors.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Woodruff followed her father’s Army career to stations in Missouri, Georgia, New Jersey and overseas in Germany and Taiwan. By seventh grade she had attended seven different schools, sparking a lifelong interest in public affairs.
As a teenager, she was gripped by coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination, followed within a few years by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
She began college as a math major but switched to political science after finding out, she said, that math professors at the time didn’t really think women should be studying calculus. She worked as an intern for a Georgia congressman and graduated from Duke University.
She said that she later regretted not having become more involved in the civil rights movement, but her early exposure to a wide range of human conditions helped her understand that “people struggle. Things are not handed to you.” She became determined to give a voice to people who otherwise might not have one.
“I chose journalism because I felt journalism could be a way to shine a light,” she said.
Woodruff has covered politics and other news for more than four decades at CNN, NBC and PBS. She was an anchor and senior correspondent for CNN for 12 years and previously worked for PBS from 1983 to 1993, when she was the chief Washington correspondent for “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” From 1984 to 1990, she also anchored PBS’ award-winning weekly documentary series, “Frontline with Judy Woodruff.”
Despite the confines of her current job, she still tries to stay in touch with the world outside Washington, D.C., by reading and traveling to places like Billings.
“I don’t ever want to get to a place where I feel like I’ve got it figured out,” she said.
But she acknowledged that journalists have a long way to go in keeping the public adequately informed, noting the low voter turnout in America, particularly in local and state elections.
That puts an extra burden on journalists, particularly in a changing industry.
“From the moment we open our eyes in the morning,” she said, “we’re working.”
She also said that public broadcasting doesn’t face all of the competitive pressures that drive “lowest common denominator” reporting at commercial networks. PBS has the freedom to “dare to be dull” by delving into important but complex topics, she said.
In response to a question, Woodruff said that politics in Washington today has become “mean-spirited” and a “blood sport.” Lawmakers frequently leave town on Thursday night and return Monday night, limiting the time they have to get to know and work with each other, she said. They ascribe terrible motives to the opposing party and even question opponents’ patriotism.
Too many reporters now cover the president, she said, neglecting stories that could come out of federal agencies, the Pentagon and lobbyists.
Asked during the noon luncheon if it has been hard to remain objective during the presidency of Donald Trump, Woodruff said that fairness, not objectivity, should be the goal. She said an editor told her during her first job on a newspaper that nobody cared what she thought, so she should leave herself out of the stories.
“That’s what I learned and that’s who I am,” she said, and as a result, “it’s not different for me” in the Trump era. “I tend to be someone who tries really hard to see both sides of the story.”
She also again emphasized that journalists need to stay in touch with their readers and viewers.
“We have to get out and talk to more Americans,” she said. “It’s all about getting out and literally sitting down with people.”
Woodruff’s appearance was sponsored by the Billings Public Library Foundation, Yellowstone Public Radio, Friends of Montana PBS, Buchanan Capital, the Zonta Club of Billings and MSU Billings.
Ed Kemmick contributed to this report.