Gwen Ifill’s profound impact on African-American women journalists
Gwen Ifill made it easier for Sonya Ross to cover the White House. She set a great example, provided pointers, and boosted her confidence.
“She blazed a trail,” said Ross, a White House reporter at the Associated Press for nearly seven years who is now AP’s race and ethnicity editor. “She didn’t just teach me how to do it; she showed the world how to do it.”
Indeed, people around the world were stunned by reports of the 61-year-old Ifill’s death from cancer in mid-November—two days before she was to receive the 2016 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University. Everyone from President Obama to people on the street praised the way in which she protected “the public’s right to know” throughout her career, most recently as moderator and managing editor of Washington Week as well as co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour.
However, her loss is especially profound for African-American journalists, especially women. The pool of black journalists covering national politics is small, and it’s even tinier for coveted beats like the White House and presidential campaigns, of which Ifill covered seven.
“She showed that, number one, black journalists can do that,” said Vanessa Williams, a national reporter at the Washington Post who covered the recent election. “There are not a whole lot of us, but there are more because of Gwen.” This would include young women on the campaign trail like Candace Smith at ABC and Yamiche Alcindor at the New York Times.
Overall, African Americans make up 3.4 percent of the news workforce in radio; 4.7 percent at newspapers; and 11.1 percent for television, according to the 2016 Newsroom Research Report released by Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University.
Ifill made a seemingly smooth transition from print to broadcast journalism and excelled at both. She spent the early part of her career as a reporter at the Boston Herald American and the Baltimore Evening Sun. Then she became a national political reporter at the Washington Post and a White House correspondent for the New York Times.
She bore whatever bumps and bruises she endured along the way with grace and dignity. “Gwen floated above all the muck unstained, and that was beautiful to see,” Ross said. “She catapulted onto the national stage and was shining like a diamond in the sky.”
After switching to NBC News in 1994, she became chief congressional and political correspondent. In 2009, she wrote a best-seller, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
Considered a “journalist’s journalist,” Ifill was praised as being fair, balanced, and always prepared with a wry sense of humor. During an “Inside Media” tribute at the Newseum last month, Karen Tumulty, a national political correspondent at the Washington Post, said that Ifill was no-nonsense and prohibited Washington Week guests from discussing the program topics in the green room so that viewers would benefit from fresh analysis.
Political writer and Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis, who overlapped with Ifill at the Sun and the Times, said that the journalist “added so much to the profession” and could offer interesting insights on any topic. Just as important, she didn’t shy away from highlighting issues that resonated with African Americans.
“There’s no one really like a Gwen Ifill to elevate the coverage and the discussion,” Curtis said. As an example, she recalled how Ifill stumped Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat John Edwards during the 2004 vice presidential debate with a question on how they would handle the high rate of HIV/AIDS among black women.
“We were contemporaries age-wise, but I looked at her as more of a role model in many ways,” said Curtis, who wrote an appreciation of Ifill for ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com. “I really miss Gwen, and there are not enough people in the pipeline. I wish that more news organizations would recognize the strength of bringing in different voices.”
Williams praised Ifill for remaining an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and working to build that pipeline. “Don’t let anyone make you feel that you don’t belong here,” Ifill would tell aspiring journalists. “You do. And this is how to do this.”
“She was just the warmest, most generous person with her time and with her knowledge,” said Williams, a former NABJ president. “She was approachable. That was much appreciated.”
“She used her contacts to help us do great things for NABJ,” Williams added. “A lot of people with big names don’t really do that. It was clear that Gwen cared and that she was proud to be in NABJ.”
Ross is glad to have known the “non-political Gwen,” attending many New Year’s Day gatherings at her home. Both were members of Metropolitan AME Church, which was filled to capacity for a community celebration of her life on a Friday night followed by a funeral attended by First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday.
“Seeing her on her pew at Metropolitan was comforting for me,” Ross said, especially on the Mother’s Day service following the death of her mom. Being a motherless adult child in a church overflowing with maternal tributes was more emotional than Ross had anticipated. However, she found solace during the welcome when congregants circulated to greet one another.
“Gwen made a beeline over to me and gave me the biggest hug,” Ross said. “I was a mess. She picked up on that without me having to say it.”
A warm smile, an unexpected note, a pat on the back—these are all things that endeared Ifill to so many. “She was a complete person who enjoyed work and enjoyed life,” Curtis said. “Every time I would run into her, she always had some funny observation or a unique point of view.”
Many people lament the absence of her take on the presidential transition as well as the next four years. “I really miss her voice right now,” Curtis said. “I would really love to hear her weigh in.”
Williams said journalists have been asking, “What would Gwen do? What would Gwen say?”
“Take a deep breath, stand tall, and do our jobs,” Williams speculated as Ifill’s response. “She showed us how to do it. I feel very sad that she won’t be with us physically, but her spirit will be here to guide us.”
“I do hope more of us will take this as a sign to lift each other up in this industry,” she said. “We just have to figure out a way to be ‘Gwen-ish’ in the things that we do, and I hope she likes our interpretations of her. We’ll be lucky to get someone even close to that again.”
“I’m going to try to do my part,” Ross said. “We’re going to be all right, but I’m going to miss her.”
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