Gwen Ifill, journalist who became staple of public affairs TV shows, dies at 61

By Adam Bernstein

(The Washington Post) — Gwen Ifill, who wrote for some of the country’s premier newspapers before transitioning to broadcast journalism and making her greatest mark as one of the most prominent TV anchors of her generation, died Nov. 14 at a hospice center in Washington. She was 61.

“The PBS NewsHour,” the program she co-anchored with Judy Woodruff, announced the death and said the cause was cancer. Ms. Ifill also was moderator of PBS’s “Washington Week” roundtable public affairs show. Earlier this year, she moderated a Democratic primary debate, but her ill health led to several leaves of absence from her PBS hosting duties.

Woodruff called Ms. Ifill a consummate communicator who exuded “the rare combination of authority and warmth. She came through the screen as a friend to people who watched her, but she also displayed the authority for people to believe you, to have credibility.”

In addition, Woodruff said, “She didn’t mind telling anyone when she thought they were wrong, on camera. She kept it respectful. She was one of the most graceful interrupters I have ever seen.”

Black television luminaries such as Bernard Shaw of CNN and Max Robinson of ABC performed highly visible anchor duties long before Ms. Ifill came on the national radar. But with her appointment in 1999 to lead what was then called “Washington Week in Review,” she became one of the first African American journalists to preside over a major national political show.

Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York, said Ms. Ifill “exemplified the journalistic ideals of Walter Cronkite, excelling in print and then bringing those talents to television. She was, like Cronkite, open to the many dimensions of human experience, she was curious about everything. I link her to that tradition, the journalistic integrity that Cronkite symbolized.”A preacher’s daughter, Ms. Ifill (pronounced EYE-ful) grew up in a home where the church was paramount but familiarity with the news of the day was essentially a second religion. The Ifills gathered nightly to watch network newscasts, and the children were expected to be conversant in the major events of the era, from the assassinations of civil rights leaders to the war in Vietnam.

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 in federally subsidized housing. Later, as her career took her from The Washington Post and New York Times to NBC News and PBS, she reflected ruefully on her family’s struggle: “I make more money in a week than my father made in a year.”

She began her reporting career in the late 1970s, with stints in Boston and Baltimore, assertively carving a niche for herself as a political journalist at a time when black journalists and black female reporters, in particular, were rare in newsrooms and rarer still on the city hall beat. She recalled getting letters from readers brimming with racial slurs and, in return, receiving a shrug from less-than-understanding editors.

From childhood, she had harbored a fascination with TV news. One post-college stint in TV was not auspicious, she said. But she began making appearances as a panelist on public affairs shows in the 1980s and 1990s, as she rose from covering Maryland politics to presidential contests.

She was hesitant to leave her longtime home in print until Tim Russert, then-anchor of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” helped engineer her move to the network in 1994 — “What are you afraid of?” he reputedly asked. While covering politics, she became a stalwart of Russert’s program, which established her reputation and rapport with audiences.