“Journalism will only get better if we, as individuals, bring the next generation forward,” said CNN Newsroom anchor Fredricka Whitfield, winner of this year’s Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award.
CNN Newsroom anchor Fredricka Whitfield has a lot to be proud of. As the 2023 Women’s Media Center‘s Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Whitfield’s three-plus decades as a radio and television journalist have included stints in Charleston, New Haven, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta, where she has covered both domestic and international issues.
“Versatility is important,” she told Ms. “It’s necessary to be open to every kind of story. That’s the key to longevity in this industry.”
This openness has led Whitfield to zoom in on diverse topics, from the short-lived creation of girls’ schools in Afghanistan to Arizona “parents’ rights” activists who are monitoring elementary school curricula for content they consider “inappropriate.” But while Whitfield is clearly proud of the range of stories she’s reported, she said her greatest pride rests with her endurance.
My mom gave me my first journal when I was about seven and she told me to write everything: my feelings, my observations, and my descriptions of everything I saw.Fredricka Whitfield
“My dad”—Olympian, Tuskegee airman and U.S. sports ambassador Malvin Whitfield—”taught me to get ready and always be prepared,” Whitfield said. “I’ve worked hard to honor this idea, to prove that I can’t be distracted or knocked off my feet. I’ve learned to give 200 percent to my work to ensure that I’m undefeated by racism, sexism, or ageism.”
Whitfield and Bader spoke in late October, several hours before the WMC award ceremony.
Eleanor J. Bader: Since your career is still going strong, were you surprised to be selected for a lifetime achievement award?
Fredricka Whitfield: Yes! When I learned of the award, I said, ‘Wow, I haven’t lived a lifetime yet.’ But I am so honored. I see the award as encouragement to carry on, to move forward. I embrace it as telling me to stay in the game and be the best reporter I can be.
Bader: Do you have a message for younger women who want careers in journalism?
Whitfield: I feel fortunate to have had many generous mentors so I always make an effort with the young interns on my team. I’m an open book. They can ask me anything. Journalism will only get better if we, as individuals, bring the next generation forward.
My approach to overcoming and getting through racism, sexism and age discrimination is to fully give myself to every story and be the best, most conscientious reporter I can be.Fredricka Whitfield
Bader: How has feminism impacted you personally and professionally?
Whitfield: I’ve been a feminist since birth because my mother, Nola Whitfield, exemplified feminism. She grew up in small-town Texas, one of six siblings, and had to deal with all of the hardships and indignities that came from Jim Crow. Nonetheless, she was determined to attend college and take charge of her life. After she completed her degree, she decided to head west where she thought there would be greater opportunities.
She got to California and stayed with family but finding work was not as easy as she’d expected. Then, one day she was approached by a renowned Black photographer, Howard Morehead. He took some pictures of her and she became the first Black face of Pond’s Cold Cream. She also did ads for 7-Up.
This is not what she’d set out to do but she went with it.
Meanwhile, my dad, Malvin, became an Olympian medal winner in 1948; he was also in California at this time. He saw ads featuring this beautiful woman and approached Morehead, who was someone he knew, and asked him about her. Morehead introduced them.
Growing up, neither of my parents told my brother, sister, or me much about the obstacles they’d faced. I see this as immense generosity, not wanting us to think we’d face the same things. This kept us from anticipating barriers.
Later, when my dad became the U.S. Sports Ambassador, the job took the family to Kenya and then to Somalia. I was born in Nairobi and lived there until I was five. The whole time we were in Africa, my mom worked teaching english to women and children. Her message to me was always about self-sufficiency and she stressed the importance of knowing how to do a lot of different things.
When we moved back to the US in 1972, we settled in the Washington, D.C., area. New issues of Ms. magazine were left on the table. I didn’t really know what the magazine was about, but I knew it was important because it was visible.
Bader: How did you develop an interest in journalism?
Whitfield: First, I again want to say that I had amazing mentors including Dr. Lee Thornton. She was my teacher at Howard University and was the first Black reporter to cover the White House. She taught me that if you make an error you reflect on it so you do not make it again. And then you keep going. Other significant mentors include Darryl Ford Williams and Gail Pennybacher.
I think that because my family lived overseas when I was very young, I got used to being in uncomfortable places and learned to adapt. When we moved back to the States, my parents underscored the importance of journalism. We read The Washington Post every day. The message—and it was repeated often—was that we needed to assimilate wherever we went and engage with people on the ground. By the time I was in high school, I’d absorbed this. I also knew that I enjoyed writing.
I believe that my record, the reporting I’ve done, speaks for itself and is the best way to defeat those who try to put roadblocks in my way. I won’t give up. I won’t give in.Fredricka Whitfield
My mom gave me my first journal when I was about seven and she told me to write everything: my feelings, my observations, and my descriptions of everything I saw.
When I got to high school I was fortunate to have a great guidance counselor. I spoke to her about my interest in journalism and she suggested that I apply for an internship, telling me that I did not need to wait until college to do this. I made a bunch of calls and WPFW AM, a public radio station, let me volunteer. I was a junior at the time and learned to read the news wires, splice tapes, do interviews, and edit them. I loved it and said, ‘This is it.’ It got even better when a DJ asked me to read a PSA on air, then play a record, while he stepped out. I was grateful that he had such confidence in me. It was a wonderful moment.
During college, I did other internships at the Nashville Tennessean, TV Guide, and at the radio stations at American and Howard universities. At AU I created the weekly Spirits Around Town PSA that told listeners about the many great cultural events that were scheduled in the DC area each weekend.
Bader: How did you move from radio journalism to TV reporting?
Whitfield: When I graduated from Howard, I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go in, so I applied for every journalism job that I saw advertised. I got hired to be an on-air reporter at WCIV in Charleston, South Carolina.
It was my favorite job ever because I had to learn everything at once: how to live independently, juggle bills, and be completely absorbed by a job. Here, too, I was lucky to have great mentors and role models. I was there for two years.
Bader: Have you faced racism and sexism on the job? How have you dealt with it?
Whitfield: There is also ageism, but my approach to overcoming and getting through racism, sexism and age discrimination is to fully give myself to every story and be the best, most conscientious reporter I can be. I demonstrate that I deserve to be in the job and have earned my place.
I believe that my record, the reporting I’ve done, speaks for itself and is the best way to defeat those who try to put roadblocks in my way. I won’t give up. I won’t give in. I keep focused on my mission and goals and refuse to give detractors the satisfaction of defeating me.
I also feel that I carry an enormous responsibility. My work honors the people on whose shoulders I stand. I know that I have not had it as difficult as my parents or predecessors. They had to endure so much to create the path I walk. I refuse to be deterred. I’m mindful that even on my toughest days I have it better than the people who came before me.
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