April 15, 2024

One week after she announced her retirement as the anchor of PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff told a crowd of hundreds in New Orleans that journalists and groups like the Bureau of Governmental Research are key to defending democracy.

Voters last week rejected candidates who refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, Woodruff said at the annual BGR luncheon, but democracy remains threatened by massive layoffs in the news industry and a rising tide of misinformation.

“Our democracy was strengthened just this past week by these elections wherein most Americans rejected falsehoods, and it’s going to continue to stay strong as long as we have a strong, free press,” said Woodruff.

Woodruff’s speech came at the first in-person BGR luncheon since the pandemic. It was also a celebration of the group’s 90th anniversary. From a ballroom stage at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Woodruff spoke about a storied career that’s taken her from local TV newsroom secretary in Atlanta to White House correspondent, the recent midterm elections and the future of the industry.

Democrats deserve some credit for fielding strong candidates in the Nov. 8 elections, which ended with the party maintaining control of the U.S. Senate and coming up just shy of retaining control of the House of Representatives.

Woodruff said it was a historically strong finish for the party that controls the White House.

But Woodruff said the results were also a rejection by voters of Republican candidates. Voters, she said, were responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and largely rejected GOP candidates who backed former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

Republicans, said Woodruff, “have to think seriously about what are the lessons they need to learn from this.”

‘We need to open the door’

Answering questions from the crowd, Woodruff also reflected on a long career in broadcast journalism. For decades, she served in prominent on-air roles for NBC News, PBS and CNN, interviewing every president since Gerald Ford except for Trump. She has been co-anchor or anchor of the NewsHour since 2013.

When she was hired as a newsroom secretary in Atlanta, Woodruff said there were few women in the industry and her boss couldn’t help himself from making a sexist remark about her legs.

These days, there are many more women on the air. But Woodruff still believes there must be more women in management, and the news industry must do more to open up opportunities for people of color. She believes the NewsHour’s broadcast has already been improved by listening to younger staffers.

“Make sure they are allowed to be in the room, having those experiences,” said Woodruff. “We need to open the door wide and let folks in.”

Woodruff was joined at the luncheon by her husband, journalist Al Hunt. He cohosts a podcast with political consultant James Carville, who helped arranged her speaking appearance.

Woodruff joked that she shared another connection to New Orleans — she is a graduate of Duke University, just like Pelicans basketball star Zion Williamson.

Woodruff’s last day at the NewsHour is Dec. 30, and the program announced Wednesday that a pair of Washington journalists will take over hosting duties in the new year. Woodruff praised her successors, Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett, and said she’s excited to work on a two-year reporting project about the country’s deep political divisions, “America at a Crossroads.”

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