Special: Friends and colleagues celebrate the life of Gwen Ifill

Nov. 18, 2016 AT 6:34 p.m. EST

Michele Norris, formerly with NPR, leads Gwen Ifill's friends and colleagues in sharing stories about Gwen's life and reflecting on the legacy she will leave. They remember her truthfulness, her warmth, her dedication to journalism and her incredible knack for storytelling. Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post says it best: "it's amazing that someone could be an anchor and a compass at the same time."

Read Gwen's April 2007 New York Times op-ed about Don Imus' comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

See a slideshow of photos of Gwen's life and career.

Learn more about the Gwen Ifill Fund for Journalism Excellence .

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

MICHELE NORRIS: This is the Washington Week Extra . I’m Michele Norris.

Normally you would be seeing Gwen Ifill. But we’re here tonight to talk about Gwen Ifill’s remarkable life, her tremendous legacy, her friendship, and the memories that we all share. It’s a chance to do what she did every Friday night. And in the Extra things got a little bit looser. (Laughter.) We all have champagne. (Laughter.) So while we spill a little and talk a little bit about Gwen.

We were talking about Gwen as a friend. And one of the things that I was so impressed by is, when she talked about all of you, she was really invested in your lives – in your entire life. She knew your spouses. She knew when your kids were graduating. She knew when they were having babies. She knew your parents’ names often. It was really another dimension of what friendship meant to her.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: One of the things that I remember her talking about is that she had lived through the various job hopping that everyone had done, and was very much cheering for the job hopping that, in recent years, a lot of her colleagues and friends had done. And she also threatened to show the old hairstyles – (laughter) – because the vault –

MS. NORRIS: Oh, from the years here?

MS. SIMENDINGER: – the vault has lots of, I think, it’s – what? You know, like it’s good blackmail, apparently. And she would just chortle to herself about who was in the vault with, you know, some wacky hairstyle from the past, right? So she really – as you say, it was, like, she didn’t just pick someone up and drop them. She really was adding to the bushel of her friends.

MS. NORRIS: She had a wicked sense of humor also.

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, she actually – speaking of that – told me one time – she said, I was going through my pictures the other day from the ’88 Jessie Jackson campaign, and I came across a bunch of you. But I’m not going to show them to you, because that was a very unfortunate perm. (Laughter.)

MARTHA RADDATZ: It was a very unfortunate decade for – the ’80s – when none of us looked good.

MS. NORRIS: Well, and she would tell it like it is. I once was experimenting with hair color, when I first went into television. And she had a sunroof. And Gwen loved sporty cars. She had a series of very sporty cars. And she opened up the sunroof. And when the sun hit my hair it turned a particular color of crimson. And she just went, ah! (Laughter.)

MS. RADDATZ: You do a very good impression.

DAN BALZ: And what did you do?

MS. NORRIS: And she said: You need to make an appointment now to get that fixed.

MS. SIMENDINGER: That’s a good friend. That is a good friend that tells you. (Laughter.)

MS. NORRIS: Yes. Yes, she is.

RICK BERKE: There is a joy that you all are talking about. And 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 in 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: She would. She would. And she would say count your blessings. You know, always she would. And sometimes you wonder –

MS. RADDATZ: Which doesn’t mean we wouldn’t gripe about things, it would just always – it would just always end there. Like, you want to go to Gwen if you were having an issue at work or at home or whatever. And at the end it’s exactly what you said. You didn’t – you know, you can go out – if Pete and I went out, or Dan and I, we might leave the evening going, oh, life’s terrible. But with Gwen, she was – she gave you solid advice, solid hope, you can do it, whatever it is, and you walked away feeling better.

MS. NORRIS: Can we talk about mentoring up?


MS. NORRIS: Because I thought that was another hallmark of her life and her career. We’ve talked a little bit about how she mentors young people and that she was always there to make sure that there was a strong pipeline of people, particularly women, particularly people of color, but people who were also enthusiastic about journalism and the importance of journalism. But she mentored up also. And that was really important as journalism was going through this sort of seesaw of change, as people had to figure out how to deal with social media, how to write on deadline in a different way because you were expected to file online long before you actually put your story together. And she helped people navigate that space in a way also. She was mentoring people as they were kind of going through these rocky periods.

MR. BALZ: I think –

PETE WILLIAMS: I – oh, sorry.

MR. BALZ: No, you go ahead.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I was going to say that I, of course – maybe you did – most of us, I think, don’t realize the totality of how much she did that. It wasn’t anything she wore on her sleeve or made a big point about. But one of our correspondents, Kristen Welker, told me this week after Gwen died that – pardon me.


MR. WILLIAMS: We’re all going through this this week. That Gwen came up to her early on her career and had a lot of advice for Kristen and took her out to dinner and was very supportive. And I’m just sure that there were dozens and dozens of times that she did that, we never heard about.

SUSAN DAVIS: There was one night after the show, and I don’t – I don’t know if Karen remembers this, because it probably meant a lot more to me at the time – (laughs) – but after the show where we were on together and our friend Jackie Calmes from The New York Times was on. And after the show Gwen was like, anybody want to get a drink? And Gwen very rarely did that. Like, we didn’t – you normally after the show –

MR. WILLIAMS: Excuse me? (Laughter.)

MS. NORRIS: I was like – you know, I was – I wasn’t going to say anything, but –

MS. DAVIS: With Michele – with Michele she did. And I was like, I would love to. And we went –

MS. RADDATZ: And Pete, apparently. (Laughter.)

MS. DAVIS: And Karen –

MS. NORRIS: And let me guess, she had a glass of brown liquor?

MS. TUMULTY: Yes, she did.

MS. DAVIS: And we went to the bar and we had a drink and I just, like, hung out with Gwen. And I had actually had plans that night and I cancelled them because I was, like, I have a chance to hang out with Gwen Ifill. I want to go have a drink with Gwen. And I used to joke to people that you always knew Gwen was loved, because she was the only journalist who could regularly get four reporters out to Virginia to spend their Friday night with her. And it was true. It never – it just never felt like work being here. It was, like, always just fun to sit around the table with people you really liked.

And the thing – one time I asked her, I said, how do you – how do you come up with your show? Like, how do you pick the mix of people? Because she was so hands-on in who was on the show every week. And she said, you know, it depends on the news. It depends on the topic. And she’s like, my general rule is no jerks. (Laughter.)

MS. NORRIS: That’s a good rule.

MS. DAVIS: It’s a good rule.

MR. WILLIAMS: She made an exception for some of us, I think. (Laughter.)

MR. BERKE: I think for you.

MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, clearly.

MS. DAVIS: But it was a good rule. And it was nice to be – to know that I was in a – you know, a pool of people that Gwen didn’t think was a jerk. (Laughs.)

MR. BALZ: I was going to – I was going to respond to your comment about her mentoring up. I mean, I think what was important about Gwen, and we all felt it not just around the table but just knowing Gwen, Gwen was – I think Gwen was so grounded as a reporter – I mean, she was a lot of things to a lot of people – but I think in her own mind it all started with reporting and the importance of reporting.

And I think that having that perspective and the authority she brought to that and this kind of – you know, this no-nonsense approach, this – you know, if you’re a politician, she’s going to ask you a tough question. She conveyed that to all of us who sat around that table with her. And you wanted to be – as you suggested earlier – you wanted to rise to the level that Gwen thought you should be at. And so as journalism’s making a transition and Gwen is helping to show the way, I mean, we were all affected by that.

MS. RADDATZ: She lives in all of us. She lives in Kristen Welker. She lives in me. She lives in all of us. We all learned from Gwen.

MS. NORRIS: But I just want to note something that Dan is saying. She saw journalism as a craft. And in the way that surgeons talk about someone who performed a particularly difficult operation, you know, she would talk about a story that was beautifully crafted. She would talk – you know, sometimes during the press briefings she would call, and she’s called me more than once about you: Can you believe the way she worded that question? Did that just roll off her lips or did she really think about that? (Laughter.)

You know, she really appreciated that. She appreciated someone who did a live shot and used their time on camera well. She saw journalism as a craft. And that is important also, at a moment where people feel like they can just talk about what they think instead of what they know, and that if you have a blog that you are – you know, that you are practicing a sort of muscular kind of journalism. She really believed that there are rules to journalism, that it is a craft, and it is well-honed if you – if you follow that sort of path of excellence.

MR. BALZ: But that’s because she did it. I mean, she did it – I mean, she started out and built a career. And at every step of the way, she had to learn something different and had to learn something new and had to operate within different environments. I mean, the Baltimore Evening Sun culture is not The Washington Post culture which is not The New York Times culture.

MS. NORRIS: The New York Times culture, yeah.

MR. BALZ: Then she had to make a transition to TV, which is an enormously difficult transition. I don’t think people understand how difficult that is.

MS. TUMULTY: It did – well, it did take some persuading on my part and John Dickerson’s part to get her onto Twitter. (Laughter.) But once she was there –

MS. NORRIS: She was great, yeah. But that’s an example. I mean, she really – she thought, you know, Twitter was, like, the name of a game that you’d find in the aisle at Target where they sold board games or something. (Laughter.)

MS. SIMENDINGER: I mean, if it was 140 characters or it was – when I first met Gwen and got to know her was at the White House, and she was a print reporter. She was doing the best work for a newspaper, right? And I remember reading a story that she wrote. And she was a good writer. And I didn’t know she was that fast, because I never watched her write her copy. But she talked about Bill Clinton giving a good old-fashioned, tubthumping speech. And that’s when I learned what that expression meant. And it was such a perfect description of him, and she was such a good questioner and she pulled it all together.

That storytelling talent, whether it’s Twitter or television or newspapers, I really admire that, because she could do it in whatever medium it was, for all the reasons that Dan just said. She had the basic tools and curiosity and drive and ambition and dedication.

MR. BALZ: But once she got on –

MS. NORRIS: She was a great storyteller, though. I went back and read the Rutgers piece that she – and I invite people to do that – the piece that she wrote in The New York Times when Don Imus had said something unkind about the Rutgers basketball team. And he had previously said something very unkind about her. And she wrote this beautifully crafted – you just got the sense of someone pulling out a sharp knife and a fork and just dicing and slicing someone. (Laughter.)

But it was just beautiful in the way that she made her case, and reminded people – who knew that he had said these awful things about her – that they were still sitting on his set and laughing with him, knowing that she had done that. And she did it quite beautifully. And it was a very well-crafted, and all the way through the end. And the lead was beautiful. And she said, let’s talk about the girls. And then with their names, names that sound like jewels or broaches.

MR. BERKE: The thing about Gwen that I’ve taken away from this last year, and you’ve touched on it, but I saw a Gwen, and I think we all saw a Gwen, that was beyond, I thought, human capacity what she did. I think what her job and her tenaciousness and her energy – if you were in perfect health, that would be a hard thing to do. And I remember, she was dealing with illness, and there was a snowstorm, and she was trying to shovel her own street. And you said, no, no, I’ll get my son to do it. And she just didn’t stop. And she didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. She wanted to do her job and be here for the viewers. And no one should feel sorry for her. She’s going to do it. And she’s going to talk to the doctors about here’s the game plan, and move forward. And it’s an example and an inspiration for all of us.

MR. WILLIAMS: Rick, you made a good point, we were talking the other night, that I think is an important one as we – as we feel of sort of two minds here about celebrating Gwen’s life and realizing what a loss it is. You know, you look around at all these awards of hers, and this is just a small number of the ones that they could have brought out here to put on the set. And this is something that – pardon me for stealing your thunder here, Rick – but she said: You know, Gwen was a – hers was a life that was celebrated as it went along. And so we have to think that we’ve lost Gwen way too soon, but at the same time she was celebrated as she went along. She lived a full life and she knew how appreciated she was. And that is a great gift.

MS. NORRIS: You know, one of the things she – we often would talk about is she also understood how to create her own weather, you know, and to celebrate life on her own terms also. Like, she didn’t wait for someone to bring her flowers, she planted her own garden. You know, she created opportunities to celebrate life as well.

MR. WILLIAMS: There’s one other point I think it’s important for people to understand about Gwen. She was as excited about interviewing Smokey Robinson or Aretha Franklin as she was about presidents and potentates and heads of state. She was a total person. And she wasn’t one of these sort of idiot savants that sometimes are in our craft, or a person who’s really good at one leg. She was the full thing. She was – she lived a total life, and she embraced it all.

MS. NORRIS: But she had a particular acumen for politics.


MS. NORRIS: You know? And she was – she will tell you that she used to watch the conventions as a young kid and say: That’s what I want to do. She knew early on that that’s what she wanted to do. And we were wondering if – you know, her father was a preacher. She was a preacher’s kid. And if, you know, his role in the church and as an elected member of the church hierarchy sort of gave her a grounding in understanding politics and human nature.

MR. BERKE: I think she really did. She understood office politics. She understood – (laughter) – and she’s, always glide through it with a big smile and you’ll get through it. But I have to say, despite the whole politics, I have to add Eartha Kitt in that.


MR. BERKE: She had the last interview with Eartha Kitt, and boy was she – boy did she have fun with that, you know?

MS. NORRIS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, all of her HistoryMakers interviews are just so treasured, especially, especially right now.

When you all got the call, you usually knew what you were walking into. But I wondering if you all can talk a little bit about how she could move on a dime, because there’s this in Washington called the Friday dump. So you think you know what the news cycle is going to look like, and then all of a sudden, at 4:00 on Friday, the news looks completely different. I’m wondering if any of you can talk a little bit about how she was able to ride the news cycle quite elegantly, even when it shifted under her feet sometimes hours, sometimes even as the show was on the air.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, the worst I ever encountered of that was the night they caught the Boston Marathon bomber, which was a Friday night. It was happening as we were on the air. I don’t know if any of you guys were on the set then. And Gwen was very good about keeping the conversation on things that would still matter, even though we didn’t have any idea how this extraordinary thing that was playing out as we talked would turn out.

MS. RADDATZ: She could take elements of whatever was happening and make that relevant and interesting, no matter how fast the news cycle was going that night. I certainly got a call late in the afternoon, sometimes at – instead of talking about X, I’d probably be talking about Y. But that also came, we’re all proud to say, from her trust in us. And we knew she was steady and calm about things, and we could be steady and calm about things. She never – she never looked at anything as chaos. She’d see parts of it that she could control, and she’d control all those parts and bring it together in a way that made it understandable to everyone, that made us calmer, that made us confident, all those gifts.

MR. BERKE: Speaking of the chaos, I watched the show we did – that Gwen did four days after 9/11, the Friday after 9/11, and we were on.

MS. RADDATZ: That we were on.

MR. BERKE: I was in New York; you were at the State Department. And Gwen was grilling me, what’s it like on the ground, what do you see, what’s Bush saying.

MS. NORRIS: And that’s when President Bush was there with his bullhorn meeting with the first responders?

MR. BERKE: With his bullhorn. And she just effortlessly, when the world was in chaos – and that’s why we so miss her now, because there’s such chaos going on and Washington feels upended – no matter who you voted for, it’s upended. You miss that steadiness that she showed in those 9/11 broadcasts the night of and the Washington Week that Friday.

MS. RADDATZ: But she also did that – the country was terrified, just terrified. And all of us, I’m sure, went home that night and were terrified as well. We weren’t just journalists, we were Americans, and we’d come under attack. But that Friday – and I think we did shows every night for a while during that period, and that I would go on every night after the State Department. But she made the viewers feel life will go on, we will survive. It was – it was never a terrifying time for us; she – I keep using the word that she calmed us down, but she did, I mean, because she had such command and she had such moral clarity that I felt better after I did those shows. I felt better about what I was doing – that I was informing people, that my job was to do that – but she was truly the anchor. She was the anchor, and she define the word during that – during that week, that she – that she would reach out to the rest of the country and make us feel OK.

MS. NORRIS: And trust, because anchor is a term that we forget what it really means, you know, to really – to sort of hold the ship.

MS. RADDATZ: She steadied that ship. She was – she was amazing.

MS. NORRIS: We have heard over and over again – first of all, we should say the outpouring of tributes is just phenomenal in social media, from luminaries, from viewers. And there is something that people say over and over again: her voice is so needed right now, especially right now, because of the chaos that we see here in Washington politically and really, you know, all over the world. So what is it that we do need? Because we will need to find it in ourselves as journalists and as Americans and as storytellers and communicators. What is it that we need to think about from her many – arsenal of talents that we need to draw upon as we figure out how to march forward?

MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, I was thinking about what Martha was just saying because in my head I was thinking that, being such a good journalist, she didn’t rely on everyone to come on Friday night about something they had already written, but also to ask them – or broadcast – but ask them about – to look ahead or to be reporters on their beat, to know their beat. So in my head, it’s like she’s also an editor. So I will be thinking as I’m covering this seismic shift what – these questions that she asked us on the show, or that she asked us before we were getting ready to come on, they helped to guide my thinking about the coverage that we were doing, in addition to what we’d already done. So I’ll be listening for that in my own head because she asked all of us privately good questions: I’m thinking about this; what do you think? Should we talk about this? What else are we missing? What else should we be bringing to the table? And those are all the smart kind of editing questions that you look for from a really good journalist.

MS. DAVIS: She was – in a lot of the obituaries and things written about Gwen, they cited the quote of hers where she saw it her job to bring light, not heat. And I think particularly now, just in the conversation in Washington and how everything seems so heated, that that seems more important than ever. And that – it was the first time I had heard that from her mouth when I was reading her obituary, and it was like, yes, that was totally Gwen, and that mission is still there.

MS. RADDATZ: But we have to do better. I think that’s what Gwen would want us to do.

MS. DAVIS: Yeah, absolutely.

MS. RADDATZ: She’d want us all to do better. There’s a lot of criticism about the media right now, and we need to look at ourselves. We need to go back to exactly what you’re talking about with Gwen. She loved her craft. She was good at it. She was a journalist. She was tough but fair. And I think we want to continue that, and every day try to get better at it.

MR. BALZ: I would think that what she would want to do if she was continuing on – we all wish she were – first, to be open-minded about what’s going on. I mean, not to – not to approach this new administration with a whole set of preconceived notions. I think she would want all of us around the table to be able to help explain the country: How did we get to this point? What does it say about us as a people? But I think the third thing – because everything we know about her is this – you know, this moral clarity that she has brought to it – she would want, while being open-minded, to call out when things needed to be called out, and to speak forthrightly when things go off-track. That’s a rare combination. I mean, not many of us are able to sort of do all that at once, but I think that’s the way Gwen would approach this moment. And it’s something we all have to try to do.

MR. BERKE: And I think approaching the moment in a solemn way and a deeply reported way with no patience for the bloviators that you see on TV. And she never had bloviators on this show. That was totally anti-Gwen. And I think, in these days, that’s what she would want: reasoned, smart reporting.

MS. TUMULTY: It’s amazing that somebody could be an anchor and a compass at the same time. (Laughter.)

MS. NORRIS: Well, Gwen, we will – we will miss you. We will carry your legacy forward. We will carry you in our hearts and in our work.

Alexis, Susan, Pete, Dan, Rick, Karen, Martha, thank you very much. Thanks for watching.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064