Gwen Ifill, who covered politics for some of the country’s premier newspapers before transitioning to broadcast journalism and making her greatest mark as one of the most prominent TV anchors of her generation, died Nov. 14 at a hospice center in Washington. She was 61.
The cause was endometrial cancer, said her brother, Roberto Ifill.
Her ill health led to recent leaves of absence from her jobs as co-anchor of “The PBS NewsHour” and as moderator of PBS’s “Washington Week” roundtable public affairs show. In February, she moderated a Democratic primary debate in Wisconsin between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“NewsHour” co-anchor Judy Woodruff called Ms. Ifill a consummate communicator who exuded “the rare combination of authority and warmth. She came through the screen as a friend to people who watched her, but she also displayed the authority for people to believe you, to have credibility.”
In addition, Woodruff said, “She didn’t mind telling anyone when she thought they were wrong, on camera. She kept it respectful. She was one of the most graceful interrupters I have ever seen.”
Black television luminaries such as Bernard Shaw of CNN and Max Robinson of ABC performed highly visible anchor duties long before Ms. Ifill came on the national radar. But with her appointment in 1999 to lead what was then called “Washington Week in Review,” she became one of the first African American women to preside over a major national political show.
Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York said that Ms. Ifill “exemplified the journalistic ideals of Walter Cronkite, excelling in print and then bringing those talents to television. She was, like Cronkite, open to the many dimensions of human experience, she was curious about everything. I link her to that tradition, the journalistic integrity that Cronkite symbolized.”
A preacher’s daughter, Ms. Ifill (pronounced EYE-ful) grew up in a home where the church was paramount but familiarity with the news of the day was essentially a second religion. The Ifills gathered nightly to watch network newscasts, and the children were expected to be conversant in the major events of the civil rights and Vietnam War eras.
Because of her father’s low pay, she noted at one time that she was likely the only Washington journalist covering the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had also lived federally subsidized housing. Later, as her career took her from The Washington Post and New York Times to NBC News and PBS, she reflected ruefully on her family’s struggle: “I make more money in a week than my father made in a year.”
She began her reporting career in the late 1970s, with stints at newspapers in Boston and Baltimore, assertively carving a niche for herself as a political journalist at a time when black journalists and black female reporters, in particular, were rare in newsrooms and rarer still on the city hall beat. She recalled getting letters from readers (and once from a colleague) brimming with racial slurs and, in return, receiving a shrug from less-than-understanding editors.
As she rose from covering Maryland politics to presidential contests in 1988 and 1992, she began showing up as a panelist on Washington public affairs shows. But she also resisted many more such invitations, fearing too many appearances would make her seem like a partisan pundit or self-promoting personality than a serious reporter well-versed in politics, international news and cultural affairs.
She wrestled with job offers in broadcast — all three major networks reportedly sought her as an on-air correspondent — until Tim Russert, anchor of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” helped engineer her move to his network in 1994 — “What are you afraid of?” he reputedly asked.
While covering politics for NBC, she became a stalwart of Russert’s program, which established her reputation and rapport with audiences. In 1999, she took her expertise to public television, which had a noticeably smaller audience than the networks but could devote more time to what she considered complex and important issues of the day.
Her personal demeanor masked a not entirely unambitious side: She only accepted the “Washington Week” offer when the producers sweetened the deal to include a dual position as senior political correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
In 2004, Ms. Ifill moderated a vice presidential debate between incumbent Richard Cheney, a Republican, and then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). She drew praise for asking a startling and revealing question about health care.
“In particular,” she said, “I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?”
Cheney questioned her numbers, and Edwards talked about Africa. Many health experts lauded Ms. Ifill for shining the spotlight on office-seekers who appeared far removed from a largely invisible population.
Ms. Ifill later moderated a 2008 vice presidential debate between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican contender, and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Democratic candidate. In recent years, she hosted town-hall-style specials for PBS centered on fractured race relations, police shootings and gun violence — “America After Ferguson” and “America After Charleston.”
“I was taught that the search for truth and the search for justice are not incompatible and are, in fact, essential,” Ms. Ifill told an audience of journalism students in 2013. “Diversity is essential to the success of the news industry, and journalists must include diverse voices in their coverage in order to reach a broader audience. We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.”
Gwendolyn Ifill was born in Queens, N.Y., on Sept. 29, 1955, and grew up as the fifth of six siblings. Her father, O. Urcille Ifill, was a Panamanian emigree who became a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal church. Her mother, the former Eleanor Husbands, was a homemaker from Barbados.
The Ifills led an itinerant life around the Northeast for her father’s career, and Ms. Ifill graduated from high school in Springfield, Mass. She graduated in 1977 from Simmons College in Boston, with a bachelor’s degree in communications studies. After an inauspicious job at a local TV station, she joined the Boston Herald American writing about food (“I couldn’t cook,” she once said) before advancing to the school board beat — her first experience with bruising politics in a city cleaved by forced busing.
Newsroom politics were also stark, she recalled. The “old white guys” who filled the paper had “never seen anything like me — a college-educated black woman,” Ms. Ifill once told an interviewer. “And they didn’t know how to deal with me.”
She joined the Baltimore Sun in 1981, covering city hall, and then came to The Post in 1984, initially assigned to the Prince George’s County bureau covering suburban politics. She eventually covered the presidential bids in 1988 of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and televangelist Pat Robertson, both long-shot nominees of the Democrats and Republicans, respectively.
In 1992, a year after the Times hired her as a congressional correspondent, she went on the presidential campaign trail covering Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. When he defeated the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, Ms. Ifill became the newspaper’s White House correspondent. Two years later, she made the leap to broadcast journalism and continued to cover a series of Clinton scandals surrounding alleged financial misdeeds as well as the impeachment hearings against the president stemming from his affair with a White House intern.
WETA, the public broadcasting station in Washington, fired Ken Bode as moderator of “Washington Week in Review” in a programming shake-up and offered the position to Ms. Ifill, who had made appearances on the show for much of the decade. Media watchers began to ponder if the revamping was intended to goose audiences by going the route of high-decibel, combative punditry on cable news shows, but Ms. Ifill’s presence doused those four-alarm concerns.
In Salon.com, journalist Robert Margolis likened Ms. Ifill to Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the former New York Knick, an athlete who embodied dedication to the sport and composure in the heat of play. “Like Frazier,” Margolis added, she “maintains an external sense of cool and serenity, while underneath lie serious smarts, smooth execution and a healthy dose of skepticism.”
She and Woodruff officially were named anchors of the “NewsHour” in 2013, a year after Lehrer’s retirement, and they shared managing editor responsibilities for directing coverage.
As her health deteriorated, Ms. Ifill kept up a daunting regimen. Her friend Richard L. Berke, a former senior editor at the Times, described it: chemotherapy on Thursday, “Washington Week” on Friday, collapse at home on the weekends and back to work on Monday. “It was a strength and resilience I had never encountered before,” he said.
Ms. Ifill was the author of a book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (2009), which traced a post-civil rights generation of African-American politicians.
Ms. Ifill never married and did not have children. Besides Roberto Ifill, of Silver Spring, survivors include another brother, Rev. Earle Ifill of Atlanta; and a sister, Maria Philip of Silver Spring.
At a peak moment of Ms. Ifill’s broadcasting power, soon after becoming co-anchor of “The NewsHour,” she told the Times, “When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color.
“I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”
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