Judy Woodruff, the Woman of the Hour

Judy Woodruff, the Woman of the Hour

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Ms. Woodruff has been working in Washington since 1977, when she landed in the capital to cover President Jimmy Carter’s administration. The modern news cycle is a little different now — less of a cycle and more like a cyclone, the informational equivalent of standing in front of a tennis ball machine. At “NewsHour,” long known for its slower pace, viewership is up 20 percent over this time last year, with an average of 1.24 million viewers a minute, according to Nielsen.

“We don’t feel the need to go off on a tangent and cover something that’s the Twitter story of the day,” Ms. Woodruff said of “NewsHour.”

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Jared Soares for The New York Times

This audience is tiny compared with its larger network counterparts, but the program tends to attract an engaged audience of highly educated viewers. (The average “NewsHour” viewer is 68 years old.) Ms. Woodruff’s measured delivery, with her hands clasped and her voice low, stands as a counterweight to a haywire era of American news, and she evokes the formal manner of broadcast giants who came before her.

In a media landscape dominated more than ever by the pursuit of clicks and ratings, the thought of an hourlong newscast, untethered to the trends of the moment, seems almost radical. Ms. Woodruff thinks that viewers may be seeking out a more immersive broadcast.

“We don’t feel the need to go off on a tangent and cover something that’s the Twitter story of the day,” she said. “Not the bright shiny thing that someone threw up in the air for a moment.”

That is easier said than done when the person lobbing shiny objects is the president. Ms. Woodruff is keeping pace with the news demands, but she was not supposed to lead “NewsHour” alone. She was part of a milestone moment for women in journalism when she and Gwen Ifill — a trailblazer for black journalists — were named co-anchors in 2013, making it the first network broadcast to be anchored by two women.

Ms. Ifill’s death from cancer last November, six days after the election, stunned even the people closest to her. After covering the aftermath of the election and grappling with the loss of Ms. Ifill, Ms. Woodruff and “NewsHour” producers recently began a cautious search for another co-anchor.

Until then, Ms. Woodruff is at the helm on her own, and the news isn’t stopping.

A ‘Workhorse’ in the Newsroom

Ms. Woodruff, 70, often begins the first thing on her packed calendar around 6:30 a.m., when she starts reading up on the news. And she will usually fit in a workout before driving to the “NewsHour” studio.

The offices are a six-mile, traffic-clogged drive from Washington, in Arlington, Va.

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Ms. Woodruff said that getting her start wasn’t easy, and that she was told she could not be hired as a reporter by one prospective employer — he already had one “woman reporter” on staff and wouldn’t be needing another. She was eventually hired at the CBS affiliate in Atlanta in 1970.

Ms. Woodruff and her husband, Al Hunt, in 2004.

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Saul Loeb/MCT, via Getty Images

“There’s no question that we were pioneers,” she said of the female reporters of her generation. “We were viewed as odd or exceptions.”

She was modest as she considered a younger generation of reporters brought up in a digital news landscape: “I’m convinced that I could not keep up with the women out there in print and on TV now.”

Nice try, her younger colleagues say.

Rachel Wellford, a 27-year-old politics producer, said Ms. Woodruff set a high standard in the newsroom, starting with the daily morning news meeting, where she is known for asking pointed questions.

“We all struggle just to keep up with her,” Ms. Wellford said. “She’s just a workhorse.”

Aside from its slower-paced broadcast, “NewsHour” is distinct for another reason: Its newsroom is majority female. Fifty-nine journalists are women, and 55 are men. The anchor and the executive producer are women. Many of the program’s regular contributors — Marcia Coyle, Tamara Keith and Amy Walter among them — are women. Several “NewsHour” journalists say this has created a more diverse report.

“We realize that women’s voices have been left out for so long,” said Gretchen Frazee, a 26-year-old production assistant. “We don’t want that to be the case for any other group of people.”

This is Ms. Woodruff’s second time at PBS. She first arrived in 1983, as chief Washington correspondent for “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” A documentary series, “Frontline With Judy Woodruff,” came a year later. She left PBS in 1993 to work for CNN but returned in 2006.

Few journalists in Washington have a longer track record, and after the election, “NewsHour” journalists say, Ms. Woodruff led the newsroom with a cleareyed view when emotions were high. In meetings, she would tell the staff that they would cover this president just as they would any other.

Ms. Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, her “PBS NewsHour” co-anchor, at a Democratic presidential primary debate in February 2016. Ms. Ifill died on Nov. 14.

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Morry Gash/Associated Press

“We really rely on her to anchor us down,” Ms. Frazee said. “We always try to buttress up Judy in any way we can. We’ll go get her lunch or coffee, but really she’s the one who’s keeping us all afloat here.”

Adjusting to the Trump era news cycle is just one obstacle in a newsroom where Ms. Ifill’s absence still looms large. Ms. Ifill, who was widely known as a lively, personable journalist with deep connections in Washington, was seen as a balance to Ms. Woodruff, who has those same connections but thinks of herself as more reserved.

“Gwen was more outgoing than I am,” Ms. Woodruff said. “I consider myself a people person, but Gwen was really a people person.”

Ms. Woodruff has been closely involved in the search, said Sara Just, the executive producer of “NewsHour.”

“Judy and Gwen had tremendous chemistry,” Ms. Just said. “I don’t think we’re trying to create the same scenario, but we are thinking about who works well sitting next to Judy.”

‘Needless to Say, Judy Won’

If Ms. Woodruff seems as if she is built for this moment, one defined by a divided American public and a relentless news cycle, it is probably because she has seen tumultuous times before. She graduated from Duke University in 1968, not long after the drinking fountains in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., were desegregated. In Durham, home of Duke, members of the Ku Klux Klan were known to march downtown. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in the spring of her senior year.

Louise Dunlap, one of Ms. Woodruff’s classmates at Duke, met her in a political science class, where media was the focus.

When the subject of slowing down comes up, Ms. Woodruff says there is no reason to stop now.

Credit
Jared Soares for The New York Times

“Not everybody was as interested in what was happening right then and there in the South,” said Ms. Dunlap, a longtime environmental advocate who lives in Washington. “But she tapped into it. She was interested from the beginning.”

The daughter of William H. Woodruff, a chief warrant officer in the Army, and Anna Lee Woodruff, who did not work outside the home, Ms. Woodruff had lived in two countries and five American cities by the time she was a teenager. When her father retired, the family settled in Augusta, Ga., where she was remembered by classmates as quiet and curious. Cynthia Ballas Moorehead said she competed against Ms. Woodruff in a junior miss pageant.

“Needless to say, Judy won,” Ms. Moorehead wrote in an email. “She was a natural.” (A former classmate, Dean Antonakos, emailed a picture of Ms. Woodruff from the pageant, wearing a gown and clutching a trophy, shyly biting her lower lip.)

Frequent moves made Ms. Woodruff good at making friends quickly, but the constant relocation was difficult on her and her sister, Anita. Another childhood friend, Robin Armstrong, said Mr. Woodruff was “not a nurturing father.” Ms. Woodruff said he had difficulty adjusting to life as a civilian.

Ms. Armstrong said: “She didn’t have the most stable background. But she became solid.”

For longtime broadcast journalists, staying unemotional can be essential to staying employed. In a series of interviews, the only time Ms. Woodruff’s voice broke was during a discussion about her mother, who had dropped out of high school to take care of her four siblings, and later saved up money by babysitting in the neighborhood, impressing her work ethic on her daughters.

“Her message to me was, ‘No matter what, finish your education,’” Ms. Woodruff said. “She’s the reason I was able to go to school.”

Personal Bliss, and Trauma

By 1976 Ms. Woodruff was working as an NBC correspondent covering Mr. Carter’s presidential campaign. During a softball game between journalists and the Carter staff in Plains, Ga., she met Al Hunt, then a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. (He said he noticed her about a month earlier, after glimpsing her legs while the two were using adjoining phone booths.)

The two began dating after she moved to the capital to cover the Carter White House, and they married three years later, in true Washington fashion — “equidistant between the New York and Pennsylvania primaries,” Mr. Hunt said.

The couple has three children: Jeffrey, 35, Benjamin, 30, and Lauren, 28. Jeffrey was born with a mild case of spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal column is not fully formed, and in 1998 underwent surgery that left him disabled and brain damaged. Ms. Woodruff, by that time at CNN, reduced her workload to commute from Washington to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, where her son required constant care.

It was a trauma strong enough to knock anyone out of her career, but on the advice of a doctor, Ms. Woodruff returned to work. She and Mr. Hunt rearranged their schedules to care for their son, who eventually went on to graduate from college.

“She has stared down adversity and dealt with it,” Ms. Dunlap said. “And I think it strengthened her.”

When the subject of slowing down comes up, Ms. Woodruff and those close to her say there is no reason for her to stop now. Mr. Hunt offered another example of Ms. Woodruff’s packed calendar: On Monday, she flew to North Carolina for a meeting; a few hours later, she was back in Washington, speaking at an awards ceremony named for the journalist James Foley, who was killed by Islamic State militants in 2014.

“I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Mr. Hunt said.

“‘They lost their kid,’” he said his wife replied. “‘I’m going to do it.’”

The NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell said Ms. Woodruff had hidden the stress of the past few months. “I don’t think anyone could know how hard this has been,” she said.

Still, she sounded almost puzzled at the idea that her friend might take a step back.

“She’s carrying the show after the loss of Gwen,” Ms. Mitchell said. “I think she’s at the top of her game. Why would she retire?”

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