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PBS: ‘Washington Week’

May 17, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Public television’s “Washington Week” has been bringing reporters from the nation’s capital together for conversation for 42 years. This year, the program, whose current full title is “Washington Week With Gwen Ifill and National Journal,” is being honored with its first Peabody Award.
The judges called the Friday night political round-table talk show—which airs on more than 300 PBS stations and is produced by WETA in Washington in association with National Journal—“thoughtful, informed and timely,” adding that it “sets the standard for the genre.”
That recognition that the show’s approach is “not heat, it’s light,” was particularly gratifying, said Ms. Ifill, its managing editor and moderator. The program, the longest-running primetime news program on the air, is one of the “lone surviving places where people have civilized, engaged, reported conversations, instead of punditry,” she said. “Punditry has its place, but increasingly, reported conversation shrinks.”
The show’s 2008 road trips and live events in eight cities outside Washington were singled out by the Peabody judges for broadening the pre-election political discourse. The road trips are expensive for a program with a small public-television budget; an underwriting grant from AARP made them possible in 2008.
“We love doing them, but it just costs a lot of money,” said Ms. Ifill, who piggybacks her reporting as senior correspondent for “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” onto the trips.
Among the cities visited were Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Los Angeles. In the latter city, where residents are used to being overlooked, Ms. Ifill said, those who attended “were just so happy that people came to California to hear what they thought.”
Many of the sold-out visits were to college campuses, such as the University of Pennsylvania, where the students in attendance helped to broaden the issues that were discussed.
Although the PBS audience is perceived as being largely older, “If we allow them to keep thinking that, it will always be,” said Ms. Ifill, who also moderated the October vice presidential debate in St. Louis and still found time to write the recently published book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”
“It’s essential to speak to a broader audience,” even if it means traveling to where they are, she said, adding, “You’re always going to have a richer experience.”

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