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Talking with a Living Legend

Cokie Roberts reflects on women in journalism, politics, and life in general

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It’s not every day you get to talk to a living legend.

In her words, the emphasis is on the word “living.”

Cokie Roberts, broadcast journalist and accomplished author, comes to Indianapolis Thursday, July 23, to help local NPR affiliate WFYI kick off their “Listen Up” speaker series. The sold-out conversation will be held at the Indiana Repertory Theatre at 6 p.m.

Roberts’ decorated career is rich beginning with her work as a stringer reporter for CBS in Athens, Greece. Her career escalated through her work on the The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and continued with her political coverage for ABC’s World News Tonight and her six-year co-anchor spot on This Week with Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts.

Now, Roberts serves as a senior news analyst for NPR and political commentator for ABC News.

The Library of Congress named her a “Living Legend”. The American Women in Radio and Television call her one of the “50 greatest women in broadcasting”.

Roberts will be the first public media personality for the new “Listen Up” speaker series presented by WFYI. All proceeds will go to support WFYI programming.

Prior to her upcoming visit to Indy, I had the opportunity to talk to Roberts about her career, women in history, and the future of our country.

NUVO: How did you get into the business of broadcast journalism?

Cokie Roberts: Oh Lordy Amber, it was in the Dark Ages. (Laughs) It was so long ago. I was working… I’d had lots of different jobs in broadcasting after I came out of college. Some of them were journalistic and some of them were production and then I moved to Athens, Greece with my husband and children in 1974 and started stringing for CBS. So, that was when I started an uninterrupted journalistic career.

NUVO: I’ve talked to Jane Pauley before and you two were about the same time establishing yourselves in a career that wasn’t easy for women, yes?

Roberts: I think Jane’s a little younger than I am, but you know it was very much a “We-don’t-hire-women-to-do-that” even though it was illegal. And it was just pushing your way in. That was pretty much the way of the world.

NUVO: How did you maintain your integrity and make sure you were taken seriously as a journalist at that time when women were seen as more “eye candy” than having brain cells to push together and a story to tell?

Roberts: (laughing) I was never in the position to be considered “eye candy.” But I mean, Amber, what you do is like with anything else, you just do your job and work very hard, and work harder and be smarter than everybody else. But women have been doing that in all kinds of fields for a very long time.

NUVO: Was broadcast journalism always your goal when you went to college?

Roberts: No, no, no. Like I said it was the Dark Ages. I had no goal. I had no expectations of a career whatsoever.

NUVO: I know your [undergraduate] degree was in political science and your family is very politically connected. It seems like everyone in your family has held office in some form or another.

Roberts: Well, my brother didn’t. He ran for office but he didn’t get elected.

NUVO: Was holding office ever a goal for you?

Roberts: It would have been, except that I met my husband when we were 18 and 19 and then married when we were 22 and 23 and he was always going to be a journalist. So it would have been pretty hard on him if I had gone into politics. But, I’ve always felt a little bit guilty about it because I have tremendous admiration and respect for the people who are willing to put themselves on the line in politics and go out to the world and say, “Here I am, ready to serve. Elect me!”

NUVO: I imagine your husband, with his goal of being a journalist, had some influence on you. And you had separate successful careers. Was there ever a time where you were in competition with each other?

Roberts: Not really, because basically for a very long time we wrote for different media, so that helped. And in the days before a 24/7 news cycle, I would always be on the air before he would be in the paper. He couldn’t really expect to scoop me because I had an earlier deadline.

NUVO: Of course now in the days of the Internet everyone’s deadline is the same.

Roberts: That’s right. Now it is a completely different story.

NUVO: You and your husband have written books together. How does that work?

Roberts: Well, we’ve worked together for a very long time. We started it when we were quite young writing magazine pieces together. Then when we went to Greece we did some travel pieces together and more magazine pieces together. So we’ve worked together in writing for a very long time.

NUVO: Is it easy to do?

Roberts: It’s not hard. We have a tremendous amount of respect for each other and for each other’s work. And as he always says, he’s learned that you “edit each other quite carefully.” But we really don’t find it a problem and we’ve written two books together and it’s really a joy.

NUVO: Speaking of your books, the ones that you have written on your own have been about women in history and their untold impact on American history. Why was it important to tell their stories?

Roberts: Because they haven’t been told and their very important stories. They show the tremendous contribution of women to American life. The founding and the maintenance of the early republic and the reconciliation at the end of the Civil War — these are all terribly important stories. People really don’t know them and therefore some have appropriate respect for and admiration for the women who did these things. And I think it’s VERY important for everybody to know it, but particularly for our young people to know it.

NUVO: In history and how we view first ladies, their roles as the female face of the country have changes tremendously, in my view.

Roberts: Actually. I would argue it hasn’t. The fact is that the first ladies have been incredibly active and influential from Martha Washington on, with a few exceptions [of those who were] in mourning or whatever when they were in the White House. But starting with her, with Martha, she lobbied for veterans’ benefits because she had been at camp with the soldiers of the revolution all through the war and knew what travails they had experienced. So she became a very active defender and supporter and advocate for them. And so, that’s been true from the beginning.

NUVO: Do you think when the U.S. gets its first female president — whether it’s the 2016 election or beyond in the future — will the “first lady” story change?

Roberts: Of course it will change in some way because every time you have a woman in a new position of power you have changes in the lives of women. And so having a woman as the actual power-holder as opposed to the power behind the throne is bound to change things.

NUVO: So it’s a matter of we don’t know how the conversation is going to change.

Roberts: That’s right. We don’t know how it’s going to change. We don’t know what the “first man’s” job will be. We don’t know a lot of things, But, having a woman as president at some point — please God, in my life — I think is a terrible important thing for the country.

NUVO: You’ve been cited by the American Women in Radio and Television as one of the “50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting” and named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. Do you see yourself in that role as a trailblazer…

Roberts: (interrupts laughing) The key there is living! That’s the part that matters!

NUVO: Do you see yourself in the conversation of women in history and women in broadcast history?

Roberts: Of course I don’t see myself as a living legend because I mean how obnoxious would that be. But, certainly it’s true that I and many of my colleagues — particularly my NPR colleagues — were very much at the forefront because that was where we were as a society. Young women forget that it was legal to say “we don’t hire women to do that” until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and ending discrimination on the basis of sex in that bill was a surprise and a fluke. Not a fluke to the people who did it, but to the people who passed it. And that was 1964. That was the year I got out of college. So it’s relatively recent that we have the legal rights to do the kinds of jobs we do.

NUVO: Looking at the history of civil rights, which as you said is relatively young, and where we are today and the last few weeks as far as marriage equality and the civil rights that have yet to be achieved — how do we keep the conversation moving?

Roberts: I don’t think there’s any question that it stays moving — on the question of gay rights at least. It’s the fastest moving social change on a social issue ever in human history. And I don’t see any way that that goes backward. That doesn’t mean the fight’s over or the struggle’s over — not at all. As many gay rights advocates have pointed out, in some ways marriage — as odd as it seems — was the easiest thing to crack because it was also happy. But ending discrimination and employment and housing and all those [things] are a tougher nut [to crack].

NUVO: And regarding politics in general, having followed politics your entire life, where do you see it heading — are we on a path for disaster in terms of the great party divide?

Roberts: It’s certainly an unpleasant time. It is polarized and somewhat poisonous. But, it’s not an unusual time in terms of our history. We’ve gone through periods like this before. Now, I don’t recommend them because the last time we had a horribly unproductive period was before the Civil War — and then we went to war, so, not a good idea. But fortunately we don’t have a major over-washing moral issue like slavery. There is no moral issue like slavery ever. The taking of humans as property is a unique question. But it is a time that is very unpleasant and it makes it difficult to get anything done because there’s no trust and no appreciation for the fact that somebody you disagree with might actually be a person of substance and patriotism and sincerity — it’s [become] this person you disagree with is somehow evil. That’s not a way to run anything.

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