Gwen Ifill’s legacy: mentor, journalism at its best

Gwen Ifill

On Sept. 29, 2016, “PBS NewsHour” anchor Gwen Ifill appeared on a panel with other top journalists during a Newseum program honoring the centennial of Walter Cronkite’s birthday. (Maria Bryk/Newseum)

At a time when some critics say American journalism is at its worst, we have lost a practitioner of journalism at its best: Gwen Ifill, co-host of “The PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week.”

Ifill, 61, died Monday of cancer at a hospice center in Washington D.C.

Known for her candor, humor, accuracy and enthusiasm for reporting the news, Ifill was a tireless advocate — and example — of storytelling from many voices and of approaching complex issues with a goal of making them understandable.

Ifill’s accomplishments were legion. She and colleague Judy Woodruff were the first female co-anchors of a major network broadcast; she was a print reporter for major newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, who then successfully moved to broadcast journalism’s highest levels; she was an African American voice for diversity who led by example, as well as with words.

Authenticity was a hallmark of her work. “She isn’t putting on a sort of television face… she’s credible because you know it’s Gwen,” said former PBS news anchor Robin MacNeil in a video tribute to Ifill when she received the Newseum Institute’s “Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media” in 2013.

As a reporter and correspondent and news anchor, Ifill covered six presidential campaigns and moderated two vice presidential debates. She was the author of the best-selling book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” published by Doubleday in 2009.

She did not move through her career without criticism; at times she was lumped into that fictional collection of “liberal elites” by those likely ignorant of her history as a child of immigrant parents — a “preacher’s kid” — and of her frequent and vocal criticism of contemporary journalism’s failure to focus on serious issues.

Paula Kerger, PBS’s CEO, said Monday that “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. … She often said that her job was to bring light rather than heat to issues of importance to our society.”

At a time when it’s in vogue in many circles to say that journalism is a dying profession, Ifill often noted that “people were saying that when I got into journalism.”

She also was an unabashed fan of her job. “I love what I get to do every day … to ask the questions and even sometimes to get answers,” Ifill told a Newseum gathering of 51 students at the 2014 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Scholars program.

And that job meant more than fame or even being among those at the top her profession: “I learn something every day … but that’s only possible if you open your mind to others.

“I fell in love with the idea of telling the stories … at about age nine,” she said, noting she was a constant newspaper reader and found television news a nightly experience.

Honest. Committed to truth. An advocate of diversity of thought as well as of race, gender and age. Consummate professional, excellent writer, comfortable host, journalism critic and skilled news anchor. And for her, perhaps most importantly, a mentor to those who now will follow her into journalism.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that young people, especially young girls, look at me, and I put a vision in their heads of what they can do. … I want to look back and say we have made newsrooms where there is diversity of thought, of background, of vision — not just diversity of skin color — because if you do that, you’re telling the world’s stories better.”

Along with those words to the Neuharth scholars, one more comment registered with even more emphasis on Monday: “I feel too young to be talking about a legacy. But if there is such a thing, that’s what it has to be.”

Even journalism’s harshest critics should agree with Gwen — and admire her — for that.

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