Gwen Ifill, Powerful Role Model, Dies at 61

Ifill was the “platinum standard for political journalists.”  

Gwen Ifill was roasted at the National Press Club in 2014.
Gwen Ifill was roasted at the National Press Club in 2014. Neshan Naltchayan

Eartha Kitt, the politically active actress and chanteuse whose “Santa Baby” still lights up holiday playlists, was on her deathbed in 2008 when The HistoryMakers, an organization honoring black achievement, decided to honor Kitt with a tribute to be televised on PBS. The entertainer had only one condition, and it was the same one as Diahann Carroll, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy Jr., who were similarly honored.

They wanted Gwen Ifill.

“For all these people, that’s the only one they wanted to interview them,” Julieanna Richardson, founder of The HistoryMakers, told Journal-isms by telephone Monday. “They saw someone who was smart, right on the money. . . . These people like Berry Gordy, they wanted to know that their story was going to be handled right. That was the only one on television that they thought they respected.”

Ifill, who reached the firmament of political as well as African American journalists as co-anchor of the “PBS NewsHour” and moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” died Monday of cancer. She was 61 and had not publicly discussed her illness.

As might be expected, nearly everyone with whom she came in contact had a memory to share. For this columnist, it was when she proferred a public kiss from the dais at an awards ceremony soon after “Journal-isms” launched, signaling her approval. Her photo remains at the top of the journal-isms.com home page.

“I have no words,” her good friend, NPR journalist Michel Martin, messaged. “She stood up for me at my wedding, was one of the first people to see my children when they were born, cheered every accomplishment, forgave every misstep. What can I possibly say?”

Ifill’s pastor, the Rev. William H. Lamar IV of Washington’s Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, called her “a woman of deep faith” who “used her platform to mentor countless young people and her fame to give back to her beloved church and community. When Gwen published the best-selling The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama in 2009, she donated some of the proceeds to help restore Metropolitan’s historic building,” he said in a statement.

Not far away, President Obama, whose name graced Ifill’s book, began a news conference by noting the groundbreaking achievements in Ifill’s career and said she “did her country a great service.”

“She not only informed today’s citizens, but she also inspired tomorrow’s journalists,” the president said. “She was especially a powerful role model for young women and girls who admired her integrity, her tenacity and her intellect, and for whom she blazed a trail as one half of the first all-female anchor team on network news,” co-anchoring the “NewsHour” with Judy Woodruff.

Vanessa Williams, a Washington Post reporter and past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said in an NABJ statement, “Gwen was the platinum standard for political journalists and she was such an inspiration to African-American women in the business. She was a tough, smart reporter, with a warm, generous spirit who never hesitated to help, financially and with her time and talents, when asked, whether by NABJ or by a student who approached her for a few words of advice and a selfie.”

Ifill’s status as a black journalist was prominent in many of the news stories Monday, but the respect she earned from peers and the public transcended demographic groups.

In a 2005 Q-and-A with Fannie Flono of the Charlotte Observer, Ifill cited Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in explaining why she went into public television after two decades in the mainstream press.

“It was mostly an opportunity that came. My whole career has been kind of like that, where opportunities just presented themselves. If you had asked me when I got my first job in journalism what I would do for the rest of my career, I hoped that I would one day be an elegant columnist like Mary McGrory. My plan was to spend my career in newspapers.

“I liked writing and I liked deadlines. And it was only when I was talking about work at NBC with my pal Tim Russert did I even consider doing television full time. And only after I was at NBC for a while did the stars come together, which made the chance to host my own program on public television and take part as a senior correspondent on a second program.

” ‘The NewsHour’ is how I think news should be. It’s serious and it’s smart and it covers things in a way that other people don’t. It gives me a chance to pursue the sober side of my interest in journalism and also have the impact of television.”

Journalists such as ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz and John Harwood of the New York Times joined in a 2014 roast of Ifill by the American News Women’s Club at Washington’s National Press Club. Raddatz pronounced herself and Ifill “girlfriends all the way,” calling herself a “61-year-old grandmother, just like Gwen’s target audience.”

Harwood, a frequent “Washington Week” panelist, called Ifill “the Queen Latifah of political journalism.” Queen Latifah played Ifill on “Saturday Night Live” after Ifill moderated the 2008 vice presidential debate between Joseph H. Biden Jr. and Sarah Palin.

Broadcast journalist Ray Suarez, who said he and Ifill both started at the “NewsHour” on Oct. 3, 1999, told the roast audience that at news meetings, the two “supplied most of the melanin in the room.”

Suarez said Monday on NPR’s “Here and Now” that Ifill succeeded because she was “even-handed yet tenacious” and added that she had “a wicked sense of humor.”

PBS NewsHour said in a statement on Monday, “It is with extremely heavy hearts that we must share that our dear friend and beloved colleague Gwen Ifill passed away this afternoon following several months of cancer treatment. She was surrounded by loving family and many friends whom we ask that you keep in your thoughts and prayers.”

Kelsey Sutton and Hadas Gold noted for Politico, “Ifill, who was born in New York, graduated from Simmons College, a women’s college located in Boston, in 1977, before beginning her career at the Boston Herald-American. She held reporting positions at The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC before becoming a moderator of PBS’s “Washington Week in Review” in 1999.

“Ifill’s first book, ‘The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,’ was released on the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. One of the most visible African American female broadcast journalists, she received more than 20 honorary doctorates, had been honored by the Peabody awards, Radio and Television News Directors Association, Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, and The National Association of Black Journalists among others. She also served on the boards of the News Literacy Project, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and was a fellow with the American Academy of Sciences.

“Ifill’s acclaimed career was also marked by the obstacles she overcame as a black woman in the news business. As an intern at the Boston Herald-American, a staffer left a note that included a racial epithet telling her to ‘go home;’ Ifill would go on to be the only black moderator and the only woman moderating the 2004 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, and then the 2008 vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Ifill also moderated a primary debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton last year. . . .”

Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls: Thank you, Gwen Ifill, for blazing trails in journalism!

Adam Bernstein, Washington Post: Gwen Ifill, who overcame barriers as a black female journalist, dies at 61

David Bauder, Associated Press: PBS journalist Gwen Ifill dies of cancer

The HistoryMakers: An Evening With Gwen Ifill (2014) (video)

Michael Oreskes, NPR: From NPR’s SVP Of News Mike Oreskes: Remembering Gwen Ifill

Brent Staples, New York Times: The Grace of Gwen Ifill

Ernie Suggs, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Gwen Ifill, veteran PBS news anchor, dies

David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: Gwen Ifill, pioneering broadcaster, PBS host, dies at 61

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