ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill: A Tribute to a Life Well Lived.
MICHELE NORRIS: I’m Michele Norris. Gwen Ifill would normally be greeting you on Friday. It was her favorite day of the week, because Washington Week was her sandbox. It was the place she invited reporters, like those here tonight, to empty their notebooks and give viewers smart analysis of the important stories of the week.
Gwen was tough, and she was funny. I know, because she was one of my closest friends for three decades. She enjoyed tremendous success, but her faith, her family, her friends were always a priority. And tonight, we celebrate Gwen’s life and her legacy.
Gwen Ifill was a preacher’s daughter who at an early age knew that her calling was to become a journalist. After college, she worked as a print reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post and The New York Times. In the 1990s, she became a TV correspondent for NBC News and, later, the PBS NewsHour. She covered seven presidential campaigns – seven. She moderated two vice presidential debates and a Democratic candidates debate.
Last June, Gwen hosted a PBS town hall with President Obama. He reflected on her passing and extraordinary career earlier this week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) She was an extraordinary journalist. I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting, even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough and thorough interviews.
MS. NORRIS: Gwen was a trailblazer who broke racial and gender barriers. In 1999, she was named moderator and managing editor of Washington Week, making history as the first African-American woman to host a national politics program on TV. Later, she made history again as half of the first all-female anchor team on a nightly network newscast. She was a best-selling author. Gwen’s talents earned her numerous awards, including a Peabody, the John Chancellor Award by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and many, many other honors.
Gwen made her mark on journalism with her unwavering commitment to the pursuit of the truth and of fairness. She loved asking the tough questions and figuring out how exactly to ask that questions. And she valued thoughtful civic discourse.
So we’re going to have a little bit of civic discourse this evening to talk about all the things that we remember, all the things that made her so wonderful, and all the reasons why we will miss her so very much.
Rick, I want to begin with you because, of all of us, you have known her the longest. You worked together at the Baltimore Sun. And I want you to tell us a little bit –
RICK BERKE: Gwen would correct me: Baltimore Evening Sun.
MS. NORRIS: Oh, the Baltimore Evening Sun. Let me get that right! (Laughter.)
MR. BERKE: Gwen was loyal to the end to the Baltimore Evening Sun. And in those days, there were three scrappy newspapers in Baltimore: the Evening Sun, the Morning Sun – and we glare at them across the newsroom, at those Morning Sun people – and the News American. And Gwen and I were the two City Hall reporters, and City Hall was the big story then in Baltimore. And we would just fight to the end, and she would say never – and in fact, I called the obituary reporter at The Washington Post at 11:00 Monday night and said, for Gwen, change it to Evening Sun. (Laughter.) She was always loyal, just like she was loyal to Washington Week and everywhere else she worked.
DAN BALZ: She moved from the Evening Sun to The Washington Post in the mid-’80s, and I was on the national staff at the time and she was on the metro staff. And you remember those days: those two staffs didn’t interact very regularly. And somebody had the bright idea to bring all the political reporters together for a brown-bag lunch one day. And I honestly didn’t know Gwen well. I knew her byline, but I had never really met her. And there were – I don’t know, there must have been 15 or 18 of us around a table down in the bowels of the old Washington Post building. And people were just sharing thoughts and ideas, and Gwen started to speak. And it’s what everybody has since seen of Gwen, because they see her on TV, but it was that it was – it was the clarity with which she spoke, it was the authority with which she spoke, and it was also the personality that just – you know, not because – there was no screen then, but the personality just popped out.
MS. NORRIS: Gwen was someone who had authority and assurance, but we should note that that is – some of that was in her DNA. Some of that was innate. But, Martha, it was also because she did a lot of preparation. She took her job very, very seriously, and that’s important for young people who are watching this and perhaps want to use her life and her career as a beacon. It’s not all baked in. A lot of it was because she really –
MARTHA RADDATZ: – worked hard. Oh, Gwen –
MS. NORRIS: – would call people, would go the extra mile in every case.
MS. RADDATZ: Gwen never walked into any of her jobs. She earned it. She would do so much preparation. I would marvel at the desk on Friday nights and think: I thought I was prepared; she knows everything about everything we’re all talking about. I might have known what I was talking about, but Gwen knew everything. She never sat down at that desk – she never sat down at the anchor desk without knowing what she was talking about.
I’ll just say, I think we’re all sitting here and we’re surrounded by these pictures of Gwen’s smile, and I just – we just all have to talk about that. I mean, that is – that is – when I was walking into WETA tonight, I think we all had the same feeling. We were walking in the door, and there was something joyful about walking in the door on a Friday night because you’d see that magnificent smile. In fact, I can’t – when I sat down I couldn’t look at it because I didn’t want to get too emotional. Now I want to embrace it. I want us to all just look at that smile and embrace it, because that’s what everybody thinks about. And that’s really what set Gwen apart, too. She not only worked hard. She was the most genuine person in the world.
MS. NORRIS: Many of us have been on the campaign trail with Gwen. You loved to have her on the campaign trail, loved to be on – have her cover the same candidate and be on that bus because life was so much better when she was there.
KAREN TUMULTY: Exactly, decades of being road warriors together. But the first campaign where I met Gwen Ifill was the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign. Rick was on that one, too. And even then, you know, 30-year-old Gwen had the same self-assurance, the same presence that you would recognize today. She was an old soul in a 30-year-old body. She always could find something to laugh about in any situation – not to laugh at, but to laugh about.
MS. NORRIS: And sometimes it was sardonic. (Laughter.) Often it was. Sometimes it was at your expense, and that was – that was all right.
MR. BALZ: People may not appreciate sort of how – you know, how weird some of our lives are out on the campaign trail. There’s an absurdity along with the seriousness of the story we’re covering, and Gwen appreciated both sides of that. And so she could laugh in these incredible situations where you’re – you know, you’re eating chicken five times a day on the Jackson campaign, or stressed out over – you know, over a particular moment on a program or something like that. But she always found – she always found something funny as well as the seriousness.
MS. NORRIS: I think that helped her where she made transitions, also, because she was often thrown in the deep end of the pool. She went to television, and she didn’t go through local television, she went straight to network news and went to – you know, straight to a prestige beat.
PETE WILLIAMS: Yes, and I wanted to say that a friend of ours said this week that Gwen was good at being happy, and she certainly was.
Well, she came to NBC in 1994, but she had to be dragged into it. She was talked into it by Tim Russert, who was then the Washington Bureau chief for NBC News, the moderator of Meet The Press. And he kept bugging her all the time. He would have her on as a guest, and of course she shined. He loved that alternative point of view that she had. And he finally said to her: What are you afraid of? And later she would say that everybody should have a mentor like Tim Russert. She said you need someone who will talk you into something that you’re scared to do, but that is the right thing. And of course, she needn’t have been scared. She flourished at NBC News because she was a great reporter to start with, and that’s really what it’s all about.
Now, I’ve said before that she made the quick adjustment to television. She says that’s not true, but she did reveal some of her secrets. She said that she shamelessly flirted with the crews. (Laughter.) And as we all know, these people behind the cameras –
MS. TUMULTY: They totally loved it. (Laugher.)
MR. WILLIAMS: – really, our career’s in their hands. They can make us look great, or not – although I think it would be a challenge for any photographer to make Gwen look anything but great. But she – everybody loved working with Gwen.
She also tells a story – and I assume it’s apocryphal – that she said one of her first assignments was to go cover something, so she went there with her notebook and came back and said, OK, and started to write it. And they said, well, where are the pictures? And she said – (snaps fingers) – oh yeah, I forgot to bring a camera. (Laughter.) But she caught on pretty fast.
MS. NORRIS: You know, she also was someone who brought her genuine self to television. I mean, there are some who work in television, or even in broadcasting in general, who flip a switch when they get behind the microphone and turn on that personality. What you – what you see here every Friday night was the person that you saw off-camera, that’s right.
MR. WILLIAMS: I’m sure we all have a story like this. You’re on an airplane, you’re in an airport, you’re at a bus station, you’re in line at the – at the movies, and someone will always say: What’s Gwen Ifill really like? And the answer was she’s just like what you see on television. That’s Gwen. Gwen is the same everywhere.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: And I think that’s – I think that’s one of the things that I really appreciated about her. She was so comforting and comfortable – comfortable on the air, comfortable in what she was doing, strong and confident. And she wanted the people who came here on Friday nights or on the NewsHour, to feel exactly the same way: be yourself, be comfortable. And that is not an easy thing to do, I think, in journalism when you’re at the level that Gwen had achieved, right – to portray who you are, to know your stuff, not be a showboat. I really appreciated that part of her. As you say, she was so genuine.
MS. TUMULTY: Once, after a presidential debate, I was walking through a casino and decided to stop at the craps table and see how it was done, and the pit boss was being incredibly nice to me and actually giving me little nudges on how to do it. And I looked up like, why are you being so nice? And he looked at me and he said: Gwen Ifill, Washington Week. (Laughter.) So I said, Gwen, you have a following among pit bosses in Las Vegas now too.
MR. WILLIAMS: Who will help you cheat, apparently. (Laughter.)
MR. BERKE: And we all know that Gwen liked that people loved her. She appreciated that. And every time any of us would go out to dinner with her, she’d say, oh no, they’re going to – they’re listening to our conversation. We better be careful, they’re all going to – she loved it, though. (Laughter.) And you know she loved it.
MS. NORRIS: And she made time for it.
MR. BERKE: She made time for it.
MS. NORRIS: You know, she didn’t give anyone the Heisman, like I don’t have time for you, you know. She actually welcomed that and appreciated it, and knew that it was special.
So maybe we can pull back the curtain and talk a little bit about how she put the show together every week. There was – Martha and I ran afoul of one of her rules in the Green Room. (Laughter.)
MS. RADDATZ: Yes we did!
MS. NORRIS: In the Green Room, Susan, you knew – (laughter) – you knew that when you walked in the Green Room, and even if there was a big story that was still breaking, that was still – you know, someone was at the podium in the Briefing Room at The White House, you were not allowed to talk about it, because?
SUSAN DAVIS: Because there is no talking about the show in the Green Room. She was very superstitious about that. And I think part of it, too, was I always think of the Green Room here was – it was fun to be in the Green Room here. It was a good place to, like, catch up. Yes, we gossiped sometimes in there. Gwen would talk about, you know, her life off-camera. It was – you could see her warmth.
And one of the things I – I mean, I remember the first time I did the show. I remember what I wore. I remember how nervous I was. I remember getting an invitation to go on the show and be thinking, like, I’m just a kid, you know? (Laughs.) What am I doing at Gwen Ifill’s table? And I remember coming here, and I think she could probably tell that I was really nervous. And she was so calming and she was so cool. And I did the show, and it went well, obviously they had me back on. And I remember leaving, and a friend of mine called me and said, what is Gwen Ifill really like? As Pete said, people always wanted to know, when you knew Gwen, what was she really like? And I remember just saying, she’s awesome. Like, she was so great. And she really did – you know, she had very – I didn’t have the same level of friendship of Gwen as you all had; you all knew her much longer. But she really, I think, made such an effort to reach out to younger journalists, to make sure they got a seat at her table. She cared about people who were covering beats and reporting. And she cared a lot about younger women. I mean, it wasn’t in her actions, not just her words, but she made it almost unacceptable to have these kind of conversations and not have a female voice at the table.
MS. RADDATZ: She was generous, generous with her time.
MS. DAVIS: Yes, “generous” is a great word.
MS. RADDATZ: She was generous with her knowledge. She was generous with her joy.
Gwen was my mentor. I mean, I looked at Gwen for everything. When I – when she started doing Washington Week as the host, that year I started at the network. And I’d been on television for a long time before, in local news, and was at NPR too, but Peter Jennings was my anchor and that man could be absolutely terrifying. (Laughter.) And when he asked you a question – and you know, he was – he wanted you to be better, and he was a great journalist, amazing journalist, but he could be terrifying. So when you ask a – when he asked you a question, you never quite knew what Peter would ask. You’d look in the lens and you’d think, Peter. And I always used to think, when I started at ABC – and Gwen knew this – that I would think Gwen; that I would look in that news – in that lens, and whatever news I was giving I thought I was giving it to Gwen because that calmed me down. Because I knew, number one, she was listening. She wanted me to be the best I could possibly be.
MR. WILLIAMS: One of the hallmarks of Gwen was that she rooted for everybody. You know, there are some people in life, in every calling, and certainly in what we do, that think to themselves it’s not enough that I succeed; you also have to fail. And Gwen celebrated everybody’s accomplishments. She was – she was – that kind of generosity of spirit. She was very happy when any – one her family members on the show succeeded.
MS. NORRIS: Even when she was competing with them.
MR. WILLIAMS: Oh, yes.
MS. NORRIS: You know, she’s been my best friend for 30 years, and we were often in a competitive posture. We were – you know, allegedly, because we were at competing networks or competing, you know, in the same beat. And she could compete with the best of them, but then, you know, when you filed your piece, she was your greatest booster.
MR. BALZ: I want to go back to the point that you made, which is, you know, Gwen was clearly a barrier-breaker. I mean, she broke a lot of barriers, and it was not easy. You know, she fought, she got there. She got where she got because of enormous diligence, preparation, determination.
When she got to Washington Week, it was a bastion of white men. I mean, it had always been a show of older white men. And Gwen spent her entire time repopulating the table at Washington Week. Younger reporters. More women. People of color. And it was not done in a kind of flamboyant way. It was just quietly. If you look at the progression of Washington Week during her time as moderator, you see a huge sea change that represents the change in the reporting corps in Washington, but isn’t necessarily always shown on the program.
MS. NORRIS: And she’s done that everywhere she’s worked. She really is the embodiment of the motto, lifting while you climb. And we’ve talked so much about Gwen’s professional success, but her personal life was also a very rich tapestry of friends. And she talked about – when she was honored as a history maker we had a chance to actually talk about the importance of friendship. Let’s take a listen.
MS. NORRIS: (From video.) How did the relationship that you had with your siblings, that sense of family, that cocoon – how did that shape you as a journalist and as the person you’ve become?
MS. IFILL: (From video.) Well, because my father was an AME minister, we moved every couple years. You all who are familiar with the AME itinerancy, every couple years we’d be transferred. And so in the end, your best friends growing up were your family, were the people you knew all the time. And that was extended – that expanded to our extended family as well. So that made you realize the value of family first and foremost.
But it also allowed you to pick very carefully who your friends are and who they’re not. So I’m not confused about friendships, but I’m also very conscious about the number of people who are my friends because of my job, and those who are my friends no matter what.
MS. NORRIS: (From video.) I gotcha. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: (From video.) And that informs my thinking and informs my morality, and it informs how I gauge – not judge – but gauge the people I cover.
MS. NORRIS: (Laughter.) I’m sorry. That got to me a little bit. Friendship was very important to Gwen. She nourished her friendships. We’ve said – we’ve talked about how she wasn’t competitive with her friends. And she had this quality that I really appreciate of admitting what she did not know.
MS. TUMULTY: On the personal side, Gwen was such a collector of people. And every New Year’s Day she would give this party. And this is where all of her friends would gather to eat their black-eyed peas for good luck.
MS. NORRIS: And their collard greens so you’d have some money in the coming year.
MS. TUMULTY: Money too, yes. (Laughter.) And every year this party would get bigger and bigger and bigger. And everybody would be in Gwen’s house, you know, jammed in there where you could barely move it was so crowded.
MR. WILLIAMS: We had to come in shifts.
MS. TUMULTY: Yes. (Laughter.) But—
MR. BALZ: Well, it went on all day.
MS. NORRIS: And into the night, actually, in many cases.
MR. BALZ: Into the night, right.
MS. TUMULTY: But at this wonderful New Year’s Day gathering, which she always says was her excuse not to go out on New Year’s Eve, you could see every facet of Gwen’s life. It was such a wonderful, diverse, happy crowd. And I cannot even imagine New Year’s Day.
MR. BALZ: I think there’s something also about that day. If you think about the world in which Gwen moved, this could have been a party in which you had politicians and Cabinet officials and all sorts of powerful, powerful people.
MR. WILLIAMS: Bigshots, yeah.
MR. BALZ: Bigshots. That wasn’t the party. It was her friends. It was just, you know, a lot of reporters a lot of her family, yes.
MS. NORRIS: Her hairdresser, the folks from church.
MS. RADDATZ: Gathered all around the house and outside.
MR. BALZ: Right, the extended family. But it wasn’t a place to show how powerful – how the powerful would come and greet her.
MS. RADDATZ: I love her ability to listen. It’s really hard when you’re on television to listen to what’s going on around that table. But I always got the sense that – and I’m sure we all did – whenever you’re talking, she was listening. She was learning. She was absorbing. I mean, as I said, she always came to that table prepared. But I think she always took something away for next time. I love the conversations about diversity and what she did to change that table. That’s a gift to all the viewers. That is a gift that she gave everyone.
MR. WILLIAMS: Another gift, I think, that she brought is the calmness on Washington Week because, lord knows, you can turn the dial on your television or your radio these days and hear a lot of people yell at you about what you ought to think. And I – in the comments that I’ve seen this week about Gwen, that’s what they say – many people say that they will miss as much as anything, is the – is the dignity and the calmness and the respect – she had great respect for politics and politicians and people who cover politics. She had a reporter’s skepticism, but ultimately a respect. And I think people are going to miss that a great deal.
MS. RADDATZ: Respect and trust.
MS. NORRIS: We should mention the road shows because, you know, when she went out on the road it was a chance for her to really commune with her audience. And you saw in a very personal way how much people really loved her work, respected her work, and felt that she was theirs.
MS. SIMENDINGER: This is a year in which the media have really taken it on the chin, right, in this election cycle. And you could never say about Washington Week or Gwen that she was not trying to take her show to where the voters, the electorate lived, where they cared about their communities, what was worrying them. And she was such – as Martha was saying – such a good listener, and also – maybe, you know, from moving around as a younger person – she was so flexible and adaptive. Wherever she went, she could talk to anyone, any walk of life, and have fun doing it.
MS. DAVIS: I’m not sure I’ve ever personally met a journalist who so deeply connected with their audience. And you talked about meeting people that knew Gwen, or viewers that just felt like she was part of their family. She used to say people would send them jewelry that they made and art that they did. And, Dan, if you remember, we did the road show in Cleveland right before the Republican National Convention this year. And there was a lot of technical glitches and we had a whole live audience, and Gwen was just rolling with it.
But she clearly was not feeling great. And how many of the people in the audience and the women in the audience were trying to get fans for her and tissues. And you could just feel the viewers were like, oh, we have to take care of Gwen. And that connection that she had with the people that watched the show always seemed so pure and kind. And I feel like that’s why so many people that watched the show also just feel like they’ve lost a friend, because Gwen just projected friendship and fellowship, particularly at the table.
MR. BALZ: I was in Austin the day after she died, at a conference. And any number of people came up to me who were viewers. They had never met Gwen. But they knew that I was a person on the show. And first they came up and offered condolences. But they were also talking about their own sense of loss. I mean, she – you know, she was on a TV screen, but she came through that TV screen to people and created this bond that you talked about, that you could see on the road shows, but you can see it everywhere. And all of us have stories about someone stopping us on the street or at a hotel or at a Starbucks and saying, I love Washington Week. I love Gwen. Please say hello to Gwen. I mean, they had a personal connection with her, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in terms of somebody who’s in the media.
MS. NORRIS: Many of the viewers were all the more surprised by her passing because they did not know that she was sick. Most of you knew. And you knew that she was making her way here on Fridays, anchoring NewsHour, doing road shows, doing a town hall with President Obama, while she was also struggling, while she was also in pain in some cases. And it says so much about her work ethic and it says so much about her commitment to the viewers. You know, she wanted to be here because she knew this election was important. She wanted to be here for all of you. And there’s a lesson in that also.
MR. BERKE: One thing that always struck me is, whenever we would go out and talk about the latest gossip or problems at work or in life or on the campaign, she’d always end it in saying, you know, life is good. She really appreciated what she had. She never lost sight of it. And she always would say, life is good.
MS. NORRIS: Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, summed up Gwen’s storied career best. She said, “Gwen was one of America’s leading lights in journalism and a fundamental reason public media is considered a trusted window on the world by audiences across the nation.” Gwen’s commitment to journalism, and especially her devotion to mentoring young reporters, will continue for many years to come. The Gwen Ifill Fund for Journalism Excellence has been established. And you can find more information on the Washington Week website. And we do hope you go there to find more information.
We have only scratched the surface of stories about our friend Gwen Ifill. We could – we could go on all night. We could probably go on into the weekend. But we’ll share more on the Washington Week Extra. And you can find that and more remembrances about Gwen’s remarkable career on the Washington Week website, and at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
We now raise a glass – we now raise a glass to toast our friend, our mentor, our colleague, our shero – (laughter) – amazing life, amazing career, amazing woman, Gwen Ifill.
ALL: Here, here.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Cheers.
MS. NORRIS: Good night.