Judy Woodruff delivers the Kenner Lecture at Lehigh University.

Judy Woodruff Discusses Speaking Across Political Differences Today in America

The host of “PBS NewsHour” delivered the 2019 Kenner Lecture for Cultural Understanding.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour,” framed the 2019 Kenner Lecture for Cultural Understanding with a reference to the founding of Lehigh University and the university’s founder, railroad magnate Asa Packer.

“[Lehigh], as you know, grew out of that tumultuous time after the Civil War, when, as your own website notes, the United States was both rebuilding from the terrible and costly conflict of North versus South, but also flexing its muscles as a new economic power,” Woodruff said.

That period of division during which Lehigh found its roots, she explained, was followed by a period of reconciliation—a period from which the United States would benefit today.

“There was, as you know so well, generosity on the part of one person, Mr. Packer—and he had a vision. And it’s exactly that sort of reconciliation and vision that we need right now as a country, in our communities, in our schools, in our places of worship. You, literally every one of you, can help lead the way. You can be part of this conversation.”

Judy Woodruff presents Kenner Lecture at Lehigh University

Click here to listen to WLVR's podcast of the presentation and the Q&A session.

The Kenner Lecture Series in the College of Arts and Sciences was endowed by Jeffrey L. Kenner ’65. Kenner, who studied industrial engineering and business administration at Lehigh, established the lecture series in 1997. After a career as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (then Price Waterhouse & Co.), he became involved in leveraged buyouts and venture capital. In 1986, Kenner formed his own firm, Kenner & Co. Inc. He served as a university trustee from 1995-2002, has long been a member of the university's Asa Packer and Tower Societies, and is a member of Leadership Plaza.

Woodruff has been anchor of “PBS NewsHour” since 2013. Her decades-long career covering politics and other news has included other roles across several major networks, including White House correspondent for “NBC News,” the “Today” show’s chief Washington correspondent, chief Washington correspondent for PBS’ “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” anchor of PBS' award-winning weekly documentary series, “Frontline with Judy Woodruff,” anchor and senior correspondent for CNN, and anchor of “Conversations with Judy Woodruff,” a monthly program for Bloomberg Television.

The Development of a National Divide

Dominic Packer, associate professor of psychology and associate dean for research and graduate programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Woodruff.

Referencing his recent scan of Woodruff’s Twitter feed, Packer noted, “One of her recent tweets did catch my eye, and it began, ‘A lot of news today…’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, that just about sums it up.’”

Packer continued, “The Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding is fundamental to the culture of the College of Arts and Sciences and to Lehigh University. These lectures educate and enlighten us, they challenge and they provoke us, they cause us to ask new questions, and every once in a while they might cause us to chart a new course in the world. And particularly now, when every day there’s ‘a lot of news today,’ and the accountability of the media is increasingly under threat, when fake news proliferates, and a social media platform has fundamentally changed the business model for journalism, who better to speak with us tonight than the journalist, broadcaster and consummate professional, Judy Woodruff?”

Woodruff discussed the current political divide in the United States and reflected upon how the country has gotten to this point.

“When I started out as a political reporter in the early 1970s,” she said, “the country was fresh on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Federal legislation had been passed in 1964 to end segregation in public places and to ban employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. A year later, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed and aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated three years later in 1968, the year I graduated from college, for his peaceful, revolutionary resistance, as had Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the president, who had himself been assassinated in 1963. It was a traumatic time for all of us living at that time, for anyone growing up in America. As we think back on it, it’s hard to imagine what we went through during that period in the 1960s. But all this, combined with the war in Vietnam, which the U.S., of course, did not win—but which cost 50,000 American lives—left this country feeling divided, and in many ways unsure of itself.”

Woodruff detailed how the administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon ushered in reforms related to civil rights, environmental protection, and more equal treatment of women. After the fall of Nixon, she said, President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter, were to “realize more the dreams of unity and to discover new fault lines among the American people,” including, for example, the issue of immigration, which has “created strains in this country that have grown pronounced.”

The United States has, said Woodruff, endured terrible divisions, but would later experience a period of “relative calm and comparative quality” under later presidential administrations “that seemed to give us strength as a country and to give us some sense of achievement after the lingering effects of the war in Vietnam. But rising inequality as we entered this new millennium—along economic lines, along gender lines, along racial lines—divided the country anew and has left us, many of us, with grievances that are taking a very long time for us to work through.”

Working Through Differences

Woodruff explained that people often ask if she’s ever seen anything like the current state of Washington today.

“I do think back to that period in the 1960s when I was a young woman. I was finishing high school and then college, and I think about the 70s. But my answer is no. I’ve never seen anything like what we are living through today,” she said.

She compared the aftermath of Jimmy Carter’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton, as well as Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush and John McCain’s to Barack Obama, to the state of politics today: “We have seen our political parties fight tooth and nail to win elections. But when the vote counting was over, when the anger calmed, they honored the results. … Like most or perhaps all of you, I hope that these sentiments are ones that will prevail when our next election takes place, no matter which side wins. But I worry because I have never seen the level of division that we see today. Not just among our elected leaders, but among the American people.”

Today, said Woodruff, political disagreements feature language such as “the enemy,” “unpatriotic” and “un-American.” She referenced President Trump’s use of language about issues such as immigration, the U.S./Mexico border, foreign policy and social issues like abortion as an example.

“Today there’s a clear sense that some of the most vitriolic and some of the most hateful language is grounded in religious or ethnic differences,” she said.

Judy Woodruff delivers the Kenner Lecture at Lehigh University

Woodruff used the recent news story of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial comments about Israel as an example to outline the challenges political leaders face in navigating sharp political divides. “Some of our political leaders are trying to work through the raw differences in our points of view in an effort to bring their party together—even all of us together—but finding it is not easy to do,” she said.

She also defended her work and the work of her colleagues “at a time when the president refers to most or almost all of us as creating fake news and being the enemy of the American people.

“I want to stand here and tell you, I am not an enemy of the American people. I don’t produce fake news. Yes, I make mistakes. I’m human. My colleagues make mistakes. We’re human. But we don’t traffic in false information, and that’s not what we do. That’s not what journalists do. It violates our very sense of commitment to journalism, to reporting the news, to even think about that. But that is the climate that we are now living in, as more and more Americans are hearing this charge that is directed at the press and believing it and calling us and then suspecting us of having an agenda and of wanting to take over the government and turn it in another direction.”

Woodruff asserted that journalists should not take sides or engage in contests with President Trump.

“We only serve our readers and our viewers when we report the news straight, when we focus on what matters in people’s lives and not when we get into some sort of name-calling contest with the President of the United States. I tell my colleagues at the ‘NewsHour’ every morning, ‘We need to keep our heads down, [and] do our work as thoroughly and as carefully as we can all day long until we put our head on the pillow at night. That is the way we fulfill our mission, and not by getting into a contest with the president or any other political leader who labels us in ways that are not accurate.’”

A Path to Reconciliation?

Woodruff wondered how Americans might bridge some of the divides that separate them.

“I have no illusion, I know you don’t, that we’re going to come up with some sort of kumbaya moment where we’re all holding hands, [where] we’re all going to live happily ever after. And besides, this is a country that was built on vigorous debate. It was built on fierce disagreements about how to go forward, what kind of government to create, how much power to give to the states, how much power to give to the federal government. ... That has made us strong and it has made us even stronger over time because we can have these vigorous debates. We can and we do speak out about our differences in public. We are not intimidated or fearful that we’re going to be thrown in jail or worse if we criticize the president or another political leader because we have a particular view. That’s the freedom, that’s the democratic system that we cherish, that our founding fathers created. But is there a way to preserve open debate without damaging relationships?”

Rather than confronting those who think differently, Woodruff said, Americans seek out only those who agree with them. The answer instead, she said, might be to start conversations—and to listen.

“I hope that more of us—that most of us—will look for ways to look each other in the eye and to listen to each other and learn from each other and not give up on having a diverse society where we have disagreements and we have vigorous debates ... that we’re able to have these conversations, [and] that we’re strengthened by it rather than running away from it.”

Woodruff concluded with a call to action, citing her discussions earlier in the day with Lehigh students as a sign of hope.

“Every American, I think, today has a responsibility to try to bring us through this very difficult moment that we are living in. We can’t wait for some shining moment, [for] some individual to show up and make a difference. Yes, there will be some talented individuals who show up, but it has to come from inside the hearts of the American people.

“The stakes are huge. I don’t have to tell you that. But you, every one of you, can make a difference. We in the media need to do our part, we all need to do our part. And I am betting that we will all … be engaged in this fight, if you want to call it that, to reach some kind of reconciliation—not perfection, but some kind of reconciliation—where we can at least talk to each other, listen to each other, because it matters so much. It matters for our younger generation, it matters for the future of our country. I look to these students, the ones I talked to today, and I think, ‘They are so smart, and so capable. They are going to be the voices of reason and reconciliation, and they will have the vision that I think will help bring us through this.’”

Judy Woodruff speaks to students before Kenner Lecture at Lehigh University
Woodruff met with students prior to delivering the Kenner Lecture. ​​​​

Judy Woodruff speaks to students prior to delivering the Kenner Lecture at Lehigh University

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

Related Stories

Liz Cheney chats with Mary Anne Madeira

Liz Cheney: ‘We Can't Survive a President who Goes to War With the Constitution’

The outspoken Trump critic and former U.S. Representative delivers the Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding in talk titled ‘Defending Democracy.’

Liz Cheney

Liz Cheney to Deliver 2024 Kenner Lecture

The former U.S. Rep will present ‘Defending Democracy: A Conversation with Liz Cheney.’

Anne Applebaum talks with students

Applebaum: The Belief That Things Can Get Better is Key to Making Them Better

The Pulitzer-Prize winner delivered the Kenner Lecture titled ‘Disinformation and the Threat to Democratic Institutions.’