Television news anchor and public affairs show host and media pioneer Gwen Ifill died Nov. 14 of endometrial cancer at a hospice center in Washington, D.C. She was 61.
While best known as co-anchor of “The PBS NewsHour” and moderator of the public affairs show “Washington Week,” Ifill also had a distinguished career in newspapers, working for the Boston Herald, the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post and The New York Times before moving on to NBC News and, finally, PBS.
She also wrote “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” a book published the day President Obama was inaugurated in 2009.
Ifill was not the first African-American television anchor – Max Robinson on ABC and Bernard Shaw on CNN beat her to that job – she was the first Black woman to anchor a weekly news show when she was appointed in 1999 to moderate PBS’ then-named “Washington Week in Review.” She also was the first African American woman to moderate a vice presidential debate and to co-anchor a network newscast, when she joined Judy Woodruff on the PBS “NewsHour” in 2013. She also left a rich legacy of mentoring young journalists, bringing diverse groups together and consistently exuding calm professionalism.
“This is a devastating loss for our family and for me personally,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Gwen Ifill’s cousin, said in a statement.
“Gwen was a shining light in our family and a true and dear friend. She was well known to Baltimoreans from her years as a tough and tenacious reporter at The Evening Sun. But Gwen was a national treasure. Her hard work over decades as an uncompromising print and television journalist made her a trusted source of news, respected across the political spectrum. That she was an African American journalism practicing her craft at the highest levels, was an endless source of pride for all of us.”
“We have lost her voice at a time when we desperately need sober, tenacious, truthful journalism to help guide us through the challenging days ahead in this country. Fortunately Gwen believed in serving as a mentor. And so there are scores of young, African American women journalists who are her professional daughters. They will carry on the legacy of excellent, tenacious, fact-based and empathetic journalism that Gwen practiced and passed on to so many who looked up to her.”
One of those mentored by Ifill was Sonya Ross, race and ethnicity editor for The Associated Press. She recalled Ifill’s warmth and grace when they first met at the northwest gate of the White House around 1993 while Ifill was a Times reporter and Ross was covering the urban affairs beat for the AP.
“I had been to a news conference at the (National) Press Club and decided to walk back to our offices and I saw Gwen talking to a colleague. I went up and introduced myself, told her who I was and that I admired her work.
“She said, ‘Thank you. Now who are you again?’ and flipped the conversation over to be about me. She said, ‘You can do this, too, you know. It’s easy.’”
“One word that comes immediately to mind when I think of Gwen is ‘class,’” said Michael K. Frisby, a media strategist based in Washington, D.C., and a former White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, who competed against Ifill when they covered presidential campaigns.
Frisby admitted he caught a lot of flack in his reporting days for having a little too much swagger and pushing boundaries, but he accepted gentle chiding from Ifill who, he said, was one of the few people whose advice he actually took to heart.
“I was always getting the Gwen Look or the ‘Frisby, what are you doing?’ talk,” Frisby said. “She played by the rules. I pushed the rules to the limit.”
“I never saw her ruffled; she never responded with the anger you’d expect to hear in some situations. She was always classy in everything she did,” Frisby said. “She had this radiant smile and it always affected people.”
He once publicly berated R.W. “Johnny” Apple, the famed New York Times political reporter who, Frisby said, had attacked “royalty” in his treatment of Ifill, removing her from the White House beat in the mid-1990s after she returned from a leave to care for her mother who was terminally ill.
“We were in Naples, Italy covering a G-7 Meeting, when I bumped into Johnny Apple in the hotel lobby. I introduced myself, and then cussed him out. Loudly. This was a big, White liberal journalist and he did this to Gwen, when she was grieving from her loss. To me it was an assault on royalty. I felt he had insulted every Black reporter and, I wasn’t going to let it stand,” Frisby said.
Asked later about the incident, Ifill smiled and said, “Frisby will always be my hero.”
After distinguishing herself as moderator of vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, Ifill was not invited to moderate a presidential debate in 2012, when President Obama ran for re-election. While many of her colleagues were angered, Ifill never addressed the perceived snub, publicly or privately.
“We were like, ‘How many times are you supposed to be the vice presidential moderator when you certainly are qualified to moderate a presidential debate?” said AP’s Ross.
“Gwen just didn’t address it. She said, ‘we can talk about it over drinks,’ but it never happened. She never talked about it,” Ross said. “In the grand scheme of things, she decided not to make a big deal out of it.”
Ross recalled another time, during the mid-90s, when she and Ifill were covering the Clinton White House and Ifill’s legendary poise – and pointed sense of humor – were on display.
The two were among a group of journalists traveling with first lady Hillary Clinton on a tour of Africa.
“We were out in some rural part of Tanzania and they called a press briefing at 10 o’clock at night. We didn’t feel like going, but there was nowhere to go. The hotel didn’t have a lot of amenities and it was so rural that you couldn’t go out and walk around outside the lodge because there were lions at night. Hillary Clinton came out, urging us to come to the briefing, and she said to Gwen, ‘C’mon, these are your people.’ We looked at Gwen and she just smiled and said, ‘Now some people get to Africa and get just a little too comfortable.’”
Her graciousness was especially apparent every New Year’s Day at her home when she hosted a daylong, sumptuous buffet, where people from all walks of life gathered for food, conversation and laughter. For many, it became the mandatory kickoff to the year.
“She created an environment where everyone could be together and get along,” said A’Lelia Bundles, former Washington deputy bureau chief for ABC News, an award winning producer and biographer of her great-great-grandmother Madam C.J. Walker.
“The genius and beauty of Gwen was she could be friends with people across ideologies,” Bundles said. “She took journalism seriously and didn’t want to be seen as partisan, so much so that those who tried to accuse her of it were quickly set straight. She was so graceful about it. She just never flinched.”
Bundles also noted Ifill’s steadfast devotion to women friends, showing up for major events, dinners, get-togethers despite a hectic schedule.
“She was the busiest among us; had the highest profile, carried the biggest burden of all of us, but she showed up for her girls.”
In addition to cousin Sherrilyn Ifill, survivors include her brothers Roberto Ifill of Silver Spring and the Rev. Earle Ifill of Atlanta, and a sister Maria Ifill Phillip, also of Silver Spring.
Jackie Jones is chair of the Dept. of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication and a former colleague of Gwen Ifill’s at The Evening Sun.