Gwen Ifill, Acclaimed Journalist and PBS Anchor, Dies at 61
Gwen Ifill moderates the 2008 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. (AP Photo/Don Emmert)
Gwen Ifill, the veteran PBS news anchor and one of the nation’s most prominent African-American journalists, died Monday after a long battle with cancer. She was 61.
Ifill was a longtime fixture on PBS, both as a moderator of the political talk show “Washington Week” and co-host of the nightly “PBS NewsHour.” The best-selling author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, Ifill covered seven presidential campaigns over her career in journalism, and was moderator of the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.
She was scheduled to anchor election night coverage for PBS last Tuesday, but the week before Election Day, PBS announced that she was on unspecified medical leave. Ifill had also taken a two-month leave of absence for medical treatment earlier this year.
“Gwen was a standard bearer for courage, fairness and integrity in an industry going through seismic change,” NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just said in announcing Ifill’s death. “She was a journalist’s journalist and set an example for all around her.”
Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS said Ifill was “a fundamental reason public media is considered a trusted window on the world by audiences across the nation. Her contributions to thoughtful reporting and civic discourse simply cannot be overstated.”
From the White House briefing room, President Barack Obama said, “She not only informed today’s citizens, but also inspired tomorrow’s journalists.”
Born in New York City in 1955, Ifill was the fifth of sixth children. Her mother was from Barbados, and her father, a Panamanian immigrant, was an African Methodist Episcopal pastor.
After graduating from Simmons College in Massachusetts in 1977, Ifill’s career in journalism began with stints in Boston, Baltimore, and eventually Washington, D.C. As The Washington Post noted, “Because of her father’s low pay, she liked to note that she was likely the only Washington journalist covering the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had also lived federally subsidized housing.”
She would work for The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC, before arriving at PBS in 1999. In 2013, she was named co-host of the “PBS NewsHour” alongside Judy Woodruff. It marked the first time that a network news broadcast had a female co-anchor team.
“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,” Ifill told The New York Times in 2013. “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.”
In a media landscape often dominated by pundit-heavy cable news, Ifill’s understated delivery provided viewers with a rare dose of calm and steadiness.
“Shouting is a good way to foment conflict, but it’s not the best way to inform,” she said in a 1999 interview.
On Wednesday, Ifill was set to receive the 2016 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from Columbia University. She was the first African American journalist to receive the award in its 21-year history. Columbia called her “one of the country’s most trusted political reporters.”
“So many people in the audience felt that they knew and adored her,” said Just of the “PBS NewsHour.” “She had a tremendous combination of warmth and authority. She was stopped on the street routinely by people who just wanted to give her a hug and considered her a friend after years of seeing her on TV.”