Veteran Washington Journalist Gwen Ifill Dies At 61

Nov 15, 2016
Originally published on November 15, 2016 6:31 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Journalists in Washington all have something in common it seems. If the name Gwen Ifill ever came up, everyone would have some story about how she remembered a random fact in your life even if you hadn't seen her in a while or how she gave you a reassuring hug at just the right moment. The PBS anchor and longtime Washington journalist died yesterday at age 61 after a battle with cancer. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says she leaves a legacy as a trailblazer and mentor, especially for women and people of color throughout journalism.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Gwen Ifill got her very first professional journalism job in part because someone called her the N-word. It happened when she was an intern at The Boston Herald American newspaper.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MAKERS")

GWEN IFILL: I came to work one day and found that someone had left at my workspace a little note that said [expletive] go home.

DEGGANS: That's Ifill speaking during an interview for the documentary series "MAKERS."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MAKERS")

IFILL: My first thought was I wonder who this is for. It didn't occur to me at first that this was directed at me because who would call me this name?

DEGGANS: She showed the note to editors who were horrified. They agreed to offer her a job when she graduated college in 1977. According to Ifill's closest friend, former NPR host Michele Norris, there's a bit more to the story.

MICHELE NORRIS: She thought, well, that was really unfortunate, but I have work to do and that's how - that's how she got the job. She didn't get the job out of sympathy. She got the job because she didn't let that slow her down.

DEGGANS: That reaction, using hard work to transform an insult into an opportunity, exemplified Ifill's career. It also helped explain how she served as both an inspiration and supporter to countless journalists while filling pioneering roles in political journalism.

VANESSA WILLIAMS: First of all, she was just really good.

DEGGANS: That's Washington Post staff writer Vanessa Williams, who's also a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Williams first met Ifill at one of the group's conventions. She often brought young journalists of color over to learn from the PBS anchor.

WILLIAMS: She wasn't a news reader. She wasn't a personality. She was a good, solid journalist.

DEGGANS: Ifill started out writing for newspapers like the Baltimore Evening Sun, The New York Times and The Washington Post. It was at The Post where Michele Norris first met Ifill. Norris was applying for a job.

NORRIS: She said, OK, listen, whatever you're going to do, you need to ask for more money than you're prepared to ask because - and this is what she said - because that's what the white boys do. She was doing that kind of thing all the time, telling people don't sell yourself cheap.

DEGGANS: After covering the White House for The New York Times, Ifill transitioned to TV, working first for NBC and then for PBS. She developed a reputation as a tough, incisive reporter who was serious about the work but never took herself too seriously. She achieved a lot of firsts. In 1999, she became the first black woman to host a national political talk show on TV - PBS' "Washington Week In Review." She was the first black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate in 2004, returning for the 2008 VP debate. Ifill also drew some criticism in 2008 just before publication of her first book "The Breakthrough: Politics And Race In The Age Of Obama." Commentators wondered if she could be a fair moderator. Michele Norris said that argument mystified Ifill.

NORRIS: She decides to write a book as a journalist about a sitting president and because that president is African-American and because she's African-American, people assume bias when for years journalists who happen to be white had been writing about presidents who have historically been white. And no one has questioned their bias.

DEGGANS: Ifill eventually was praised for her performance during the 2008 debate, and in 2013, she joined Judy Woodruff to become the first female anchor team to lead a network newscast, the "PBS NewsHour."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

IFILL: Good evening. I'm Gwen Ifill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I'm Judy Woodruff. On the "NewsHour" tonight, after facing...

DEGGANS: They worked together through this year's political conventions as Ifill kept the seriousness of her illness private. But Ifill's most enduring legacy may be found in what she always said was her most important job - to bring light rather than heat to issues she covered. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.