Judy Woodruff on her five-decade career and why she still gets nervous before interviews
She’s gone one-on-one with world leaders — including the presidents of Turkey and Poland just last week — and moderated multiple presidential debates, but Judy Woodruff says she’s still on edge ahead of interviews.
“If I don’t get nervous, that’s a bad sign. That tells me that I’m not prepared very well.” the “PBS NewsHour” anchor and managing editor tells ITK.
“You have to do your homework and if you start to feel confident — you feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this one licked, I’ve got this one figured out’ — it’s a reminder that you didn’t do enough preparation.”
Woodruff, 75, is set to accept the lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) at its News and Documentary Emmys ceremony in New York on Wednesday.
“As someone who’s spent more than five decades working in news and television news, it just feels very — what other word can I use, but overwhelming?” she said.
Woodruff, who announced in May that she’ll be stepping down as “NewsHour’s” anchor at the end of the year, laughed when asked whether being recognized with a prestigious lifetime achievement award makes its recipient feel old.
“I’m clearly not about to disappear. I’m not ready to go anywhere,” the journalism pro said, noting that she would still work on a slew of special projects for the PBS show.
The NATAS honor is a far cry from Woodruff’s first gig right after graduating from Duke University, clocking in as a newsroom secretary for Atlanta’s ABC affiliate. After a year filled with emptying the trash and cleaning film, Woodruff recalled getting her first on-camera break.
“They came to me and they said, ‘We just fired the weekend weather girl, and would you be interested in auditioning?’ And because I had frankly been pestering the news director to let me hang out with the reporters and the camera crews, to go out with them on stories, and he had consistently said no, you know, why was [I] even asking, they already had a woman reporter.”
“It was a little bit like Cinderella duty,” Woodruff chuckled. “During the week, I was working my regular job as a newsroom secretary,” but then on Sunday nights would “come in and do the weather for four or five minutes in an appropriate work dress, as opposed to whatever I was wearing as the secretary.”
Woodruff eventually was able to move on from storm-and-snow duty to covering campaigns, reporting for NBC on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential bid. She later became a White House correspondent before making the move to PBS and then CNN, as the network’s “Inside Politics” anchor.
She returned to PBS in 2007 and began co-anchoring “PBS NewsHour” alongside Gwen Ifill in 2013. The pair were the first two women to co-anchor a national news TV program, according to PBS.
Woodruff has watched the industry change over the years, saying the most difficult challenge journalists face today is separating facts from points of view.
“There’s just so much opinion sloshing around,” Woodruff said.
“It’s harder than it’s ever been. But we have to keep at it because it matters so much. I mean, the stakes are enormous.”
“Being a political reporter today, the story doesn’t get any more astonishing,” Woodruff told ITK.
“In a sad and difficult way, the country is so divided right now politically,” Woodruff continued, “and figuring out how we report on that, how we get people to talk to us, when the country is so divided and emotions are running high.”
Woodruff — whose parents named her after “Wizard of Oz” star Judy Garland — called James Baker, a former White House chief of staff under President Reagan, one of her toughest interviews over the years.
Baker, she said, “perfected the art of being seeming to be forthcoming, at the same time, he wasn’t sharing what he didn’t want to share.”
While she’s had plenty of high-profile sit-downs with politicians, there’s one particular interview from earlier in her career that Woodruff might like to forget.
“This is back in the 1980s when I was taping an interview with someone about trade policy and I literally fell asleep,” the mom of three said with a laugh.
“It was when my children were young and I think I clearly wasn’t getting enough sleep,” she added.
Since that snooze-worthy interview, Woodruff admitted to becoming a “complete caffeine addict.”
The addiction includes an espresso before the “NewsHour’s” morning meeting followed by a cold brew that husband Al Hunt “wonderfully often brings me about 30 minutes later.”
“That’s the minimum. And then if I’m traveling, I find more coffee during the day,” Woodruff confessed.
Woodruff said she envisions more travel in her future, as she winds down her anchor role at PBS. She’s not quite ready to describe the move as retiring — or the “R-word,” as she says — but looks forward to hopping on a plane and flying somewhere “in a way that I’ve not been able to do anchoring the news four or five days a week.”
“Truly I can’t imagine myself not working, not reporting,” Woodruff said of her continued presence on “NewsHour.”
But perhaps less time behind the anchor desk will help reduce her coffee consumption?
“We’ll see if I can even function with less coffee,” she quipped.
The author served on the NATAS Board of Governors, National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter, from 2012 to 2016.