On Tuesday, November 8, the unprecedented became reality. Americans elected Donald Trump the 45th President of the United States and the country exploded into a mass of riots, questions, graffiti, fistfights, and uncertainty. In a time of turmoil, supporters of Clinton, supporters of Trump, and everyone in between turned to the media for an outside look at what the future might hold. Amid a sea of predictions and insights, the political analysis of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) noticeably lacked the grounding presence of Gwen Ifill.
Ifill, an esteemed television reporter, political analyst, and leader in the world of broadcast journalism, was absent from the PBS News Hour and election coverage the week prior to the election because of progressing endometrial cancer. On Monday, November 14, PBS confirmed Ifill’s death surrounded by family and friends.
At a time when Americans are unsure how the country will move forward, the loss of such an enlightening and honest presence like Ifill is a blow to citizens, the media, and journalism itself. Millions of Americans who tune in nightly to the PBS NewsHour will miss Ifill, as well as her weekly political review segment on PBS, Washington Week. Ifill’s death is especially painful for young women, people of color, and aspiring journalists, for whom she opened doors that were previously nonexistent, and refused to let those doors close to future generations.
As one of the first African-American journalists to achieve major success on national news, and as part of the only all-women anchor team on a nightly national news broadcast — the NewsHour with Judy Woodruff — Ifill represented so much more than honest reporting and broadcast excellence. Thus, her death demands more than just an homage, but a look at Ifill’s legacy and her pioneering efforts in a difficult career.
Ifill began her career at the Boston Herald-American after graduating in 1977 with a communications degree from Simmons College. Just eight years earlier in 1969, Max Robinson had become the first African-American anchor on a local news program in Washington D.C. The path for African-American journalists at the time was anything but clear, yet Ifill quickly rose to prominence with her intelligence and commitment to covering difficult stories. She gained experience at high-profile publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times before accepting her first broadcast reporting position at NBC in 1994. After joining the PBS program “Washington Week in Review” in 1999, Ifill served for 17 years as a debate moderator and contributor to the PBS NewsHour. She became the first African-American woman to moderate a vice-presidential debate, between Dick Cheney and John Edwards in 2004.
Ifill’s influence extended far beyond the confines of the television screen, and her unique ability to connect with people and find common truth in every story was perhaps what set her most apart. Beverly White, a local correspondent for NBC in Los Angeles, has been in the journalism business for many years and had the opportunity to meet Ifill several times. White spoke about Ifill with nothing but respect and admiration, and fondly reminisced on their encounters, especially in the 90’s when they were coworkers for NBC. Both women were members of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), an organization that brings together reporters who feel overlooked in newsrooms across the country.
As she described NABJ’s national convention, White laughed, “Lord knows we do party hard, we work hard and play hard and see friends we never see, but we go back to our newsrooms and often are the only African-American journalists in the room. We take comfort in knowing that we will see these friends once a year and share stories about how we survive our respective jobs.”
It was at this convention, just three months ago, where White last encountered Ifill; they talked, and White watched Ifill moderate a panel of global journalists. As a domestic correspondent, Ifill was not experienced in the affairs that the panelists dealt with, but she admitted this lack of knowledge, and, as White recalled, “She dove in with deep questions and brought out some tear-jerking stories from people who have never seen American journalists before. Gwen did a fantastic job, as always, of engaging the audience. We learned, we laughed, I saw people talk about needing their tissues because the stories were that meaningful.” These deep connections, the purity of Ifill’s work, is what White pointed to as she described Ifill as an absolute role model. Even when the information was new, Ifill felt comfortable talking about tough subjects and uncovering universally recognizable themes.
White noted that Ifill, as an African-American woman, was not a typical American journalist. She described the “short list” of black women in the profession, and the unfortunate truth that the world of journalism has long been dominated by white men, and that high-profile stories are not often given to minority reporters. She distinguished how recent the involvement of people of color, and especially colored women, has been in national broadcasting, and added that Ifill never let this hinder her. The one thing White respected the most about Ifill was simply that
“she was damn good at her job. No one could say that she was an affirmative action hire, or that she was hired to check off the box for woman and minority. She could hold her own in any newsroom, in any group, and was often the smartest person in the room.”
White, like so many of Ifill’s peers and friends, remembered the sheer power of Ifill’s smile. Though she only talked to her for brief minutes each time they met, White stated, “She’s inspiring at all levels — all my interactions with her have been positive; she always made time for a kind word and a real conversation and she made you feel that she really cared.” In a country that is historically divided, at a time when national conversations too often dissolve into shouting matches, the kind of grace and kindness that Ifill possessed will be sorely missed. According to White, “[She was] such a decent person. She was one of those people who had such a passion for telling stories. I point to people like Gwen Ifill to argue that good journalists are what the world needs — good storytellers. Gwen was tough without being difficult, and when she asked a question it was absolutely thought out.”
White remembers watching Ifill moderate a debate, and she posed a question about the issue of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the African-American community. Neither candidate was remotely prepared to talk on the subject, and as she watched, White couldn’t help but cheer for the way Ifill knew how to ask the perfect unexpected questions to shed light on sidelined issues.
Unlike so many celebrities, Ifill was as approachable and genuine as they come. White talked to her as a peer because
“she was that kind of journalist — you could chat with her in the hallway, and see her on national television and know that she was the same person.”
On Saturday, November 19, Ifill’s ‘home-going’ — an African-American term for funeral — was held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington D.C., where Ifill was a longtime member. Thousands paid their respects to Ifill, and White claimed that the ceremony “was exceptional, not because of the celebrities who showed up but because of the sheer number of people who showed up to honor her. She was a preacher’s kid, and this moving around really helps you become adaptable which is good for a journalist.” Faith was of the utmost importance to Ifill, who remained highly involved in the church community until her final days. White noted that this giving spirit was part of what made Ifill so good at telling stories, that “no matter your gender, race, or even spirituality, Gwen represented the power of journalism.”
In the end, Ifill was the kind of journalist who comes along once in a generation. She pushed for progress and created change when no one gave her direction. She was unconditionally kind and exceptionally talented, and she remained a source of joy for peers and friends even as she doggedly pursued the truth, no matter how unwelcome it seemed. White added, “People will talk about how subjective this profession is, because your work may be airtight, but it still depends on someone taking a liking to you.” Ifill succeeded because she balanced her extensive knowledge with a warm heart and a giving spirit. She stood as a beacon of hope for fellow journalists around the world, and White perfectly summed up her influence as she confessed,
“I can reach out and touch my heroes — they’re not in history books, they’re walking around conventions with me. We are far beyond the days where women only covered fashion. I’ve covered riots, I’ve covered fires, I worked the night shift. I cover things that used to be limited to white men, and I point to Gwen Ifill who convinced the world that women, given preparation and opportunity, can do anything.”
This message of hope, Ifill’s legacy, is something that the world would do well to remember as it forges ahead through troubling times and turns to national media that got just a little darker with the loss of one outstanding reporter.