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Gwen Ifill, 61, PBS journalist who covered history and made history

November 14, 2016 at 6:50 PM EDT
Gwen Ifill, who was the heart and soul of the PBS NewsHour and Washington Week, passed away on Monday after a battle with cancer. We look back at Gwen’s life and remarkable career in journalism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead tonight is news that we hoped we would never have to report.

Our managing editor, my co-anchor and dear friend, Gwen Ifill, died earlier today after an almost yearlong battle with cancer.

She was a supernova in a profession loaded with smart and talented people. So, it’s no surprise that messages of condolence have flooded in all afternoon from across the journalism and political spectrum.

President Obama said this at the White House:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Michelle and I want to offer our deepest condolences to Gwen Ifill’s family and all of you, her colleagues, on her passing.

Gwen was a friend of ours. She was an extraordinary journalist. She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession, asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable, and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work.

I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting, even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough and thorough interviews.

Whether she reported from a convention floor or from the field, whether she sat at the debate moderator’s table or at the anchor’s desk, she not only informed today’s citizens, but she also inspired tomorrow’s journalists.

She was an especially 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.

So, Gwen did her country a great service. Michelle and I join her family and her colleagues and everybody else who loved her in remembering her fondly today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama today at the White House.

We’re devoting most of tonight’s show to Gwen.

And we start with this look at her remarkable life.

GWEN IFILL: Good evening. I’m Gwen Ifill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with those words each evening, Americans knew they were in good hands, Gwen Ifill’s hands.

She was the heart and soul of PBS’ “NewsHour” and “Washington Week.” She was also beloved, sister, aunt, godmother many times over and friend to legions.

The daughter of a minister, Gwen graduated from Simmons College in Massachusetts, got her start in journalism at The Boston Herald-American, before moving on to The Baltimore Evening Sun in 1981, then to The Washington Post, followed by several years as a politics reporter and White House correspondent for The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL: Even marginal progress could be affected by investigations in Little Rock and in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She moved to television and NBC News in 1994.

GWEN IFILL: They have to find a way to work with this president for the next two years — Tom.

TOM BROKAW: NBC’s Gwen Ifill on Capitol Hill tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, in October 1999, she came to PBS to host “Washington Week,” the long-running political roundtable…

GWEN IFILL: Good evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and to become senior correspondent on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

JIM LEHRER: And to our new senior correspondent, Gwen Ifill, welcome, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks, Jim.

Well, for a preview of the Supreme Court’s 1999 term…

How would you prioritize the needs at the border right now?

JUDY WOODRUFF: There, she added to her lengthy and accomplished body of work.

In 2013, Gwen and I were honored to assume the great responsibility, and joy, of co-anchoring this program.

Good evening. I’m Judy Woodruff.

GWEN IFILL: And I’m Gwen Ifill.

Those are just some of the stories we’re covering on tonight’s “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: On this, the first night of the new “PBS NewsHour,” we have a lot of news for you.

GWEN IFILL: We also have a new look, but Judy and I will be bringing you the news and analysis you have come to trust.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it was that trust, her dedication, that was her stock in trade. She was the gold standard in our business, known for a fierce allegiance and loyalty to her family, friends, and colleagues, but also to the facts.

Her range was limitless. Here are some highlights.

GWEN IFILL: How do we as a nation cope with race conflict and our inability to see each other?

Let me turn this on its head, because when we talk about race in this country, we always talk about African-Americans, people of color.

I want to talk to you about white people, OK?

MAN: White people.

GWEN IFILL: Why don’t you mention Donald Trump by name?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, he seems to do a good job mentioning his own name.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, I think I will let him do his advertising for him.

GWEN IFILL: Susana Flores, the owner, is a legal resident who tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to make tortillas.

Susana’s sister, Rocina Sandoval, who works as a waitress, is not here legally. She could easily be deported.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen is in Des Moines for Iowa’s State Fair.

GWEN IFILL: This weekend, the political yin and yang of a crowded field all descended on Iowa at once and brought it into especially sharp focus.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VA): The American people are growing extremely unhappy with establishment politics, with establishment economics, and you know what else?


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Even with establishment media.



GWEN IFILL: I think every single conversation we have had with a Republican in this booth, when we asked them about these issues, they have always turned it back to talking about Hillary Clinton.

And that does seem to be the most persuasive argument, David, that Republicans in this room have.

Can you see a scenario right now in which he would step back from the border at all in a way that you can trust?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I think you have asked exactly the right question, as you often do, Gwen.

TOM BROKAW: NBC’s Gwen Ifill has our in-depth report.

GWEN IFILL: Even marginal progress could be affected by investigations in Little Rock and in Washington involving the president, the first lady and their political supporters.

Fifty years later, though, if King were able to stand in that spot and look out, what is the legacy of that day that some people say, we have a black president, everything is much better, and some people say, we have so much farther to go?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen raised questions others wouldn’t or that wouldn’t even occur to them.

Here’s one example from the vice presidential debate she moderated in 2004.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or in 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?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Four years later, she sat down with another set of candidates.

GWEN IFILL: Welcome to the first and the only 2008 vice presidential debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Throughout that 2008 campaign, Gwen wasn’t only reporting for the “NewsHour” and “Washington Week”; she was writing about that moment in history.

As the nation’s first African-American president was elected, she marked it with “The Breakthrough,” the story of a new generation of black politicians.

But it wasn’t just politics that moved her.

GWEN IFILL: This is fun. Now, this is the way I always wanted to do the “NewsHour.” Have a little fun.

HARRY BELAFONTE: I woke up one day and the whole world was singing “Banana Boat.” And I didn’t really understand how powerful I was until I stood before an audience of 50,000 Japanese trying to sing Day-O.


HARRY BELAFONTE: And I was like, yes, I have arrived.


GWEN IFILL: Well, I would say you have managed over the years to sing your song.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen’s spirit, nourished by her connection to her church, was on full display when she sat down with Aretha Franklin just one year ago tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: So, is part of you, you know, always going to be Reverend C.L. Franklin’s daughter?


GWEN IFILL: I’m a preacher’s kid, too, so I…

ARETHA FRANKLIN: I knew you — P.K., OK.

GWEN IFILL: But I — I am a P.K. But I don’t sing quite like you.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Oh, well, we don’t all sing.


GWEN IFILL: We have other gifts.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Yes, you have other gifts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, she did.

One of her last stories was about the new National Museum of African American History and culture.

GWEN IFILL: This is an amazing place, chock-full of the expected and the unexpected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Recently, Gwen talked about her love for the “NewsHour” and what it means in today’s world:

GWEN IFILL: We occupy a role that we know they appreciate. They tell us this.

And it’s not too much to tell them back how much we love them back. There is — the world is split into a million different little ways of consuming your information.

A lot of young people say, I get my profession from “The Daily Show.” Or a lot of young people say, I only read what I see on my phone browser.

But we have a dedicated, committed audience who want to know more, who want us to dig a little deeper on their behalf. And so, if they weren’t there, if they weren’t supporting the work we do, we couldn’t exist.

And I think it’s kind of vital to democracy that we do exist.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gwen touched so many lives. And there has been a tremendous outpouring of remembrances today.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch had this to say.

LORETTA LYNCH, Attorney General: Gwen Ifill was a pioneering figure in American journalism who quite literally changed the face of the evening news.

She met discrimination and bigotry with talent and focus, rising to become one of the most prominent journalists of her generation. She pursued her reporting with grace, intelligence and integrity, earning her the trust of countless Americans who counted on her to present the facts of the story without slant or spin.

She asked tough questions and told hard truths, but she always did so in a way that elevated, rather than coarsened, our national discourse.

Our country is a better place because of her commitment to the truth, and she will be sorely missed, both on the air and off.