Why Gwen Ifill meant so much

PBS anchor Gwen Ifill's passing yesterday reminds us of how much she achieved and why it mattered.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
Gwen Ifill speaks in 2009 after winning a Peabody award for her show 'Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal' in New York.

The journalism world was shaken Monday by news of the passing of African-American journalist Gwen Ifill. News devotees say that she will be sorely missed.

As an African-American woman, Ms. Ifill is regarded as a trailblazer by many women, who say that her courage, wit, and intelligence opened the door for them.

“Growing up, there weren't a lot of African-American women I could watch on national television news,” Sheinelle Jones, a Today anchor, wrote in an NBC News tribute. “Gwen Ifill sent a message to so many of us, just by her presence, that it was possible. An intelligent, steady, consistent, fair and reliable journalist. She will be missed.”

Ifill was born in 1955, the daughter of a New York City preacher. She graduated from Boston’s Simmons College with a degree in communications and was hired by the Boston Herald American as a food writer. Ifill soon parlayed that first position into coveted political journalism posts at The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Most recently, Ifill partnered with Judy Woodruff to host the PBS NewsHour and moderate February’s Democratic presidential debate. They were the first all-woman team to do so.

Among journalists, Ifill is remembered as a fair reporter and a role model. She was known for her eagerness to help out her fellow women.

“Her work stood on its own. She was unflappable. Even but exacting in her reporting. She got it right. And she smiled at us and extended a hand to her little sisters, so eager to follow her path,” reports Amber Payne for NBC News.

And while Ifill is known for her objectivity, she acknowledged always that her reporting was informed by her own experiences. The product of public housing, Ifill devoted much of her energy during her early career reporting on housing fairness and equality.

Her identity as a woman of color was also never far from her mind. Ifill knew what her visibility meant to young women and people of color – to have African-American and female anchors hosting PBS NewsHour was a powerful statement of how far journalism had come to the reporter who grew up without seeing somebody like her on television.

Although her past and perspective clearly informed her work, Ifill is remembered overwhelmingly as a fair and balanced reporter.

“I don’t believe in objectivity, I believe in fairness,” Ifill said in an interview, according to the Smithsonian. “Everybody brings their own life bias to what they do. People don’t ask white males whether they can be objective covering white males, but they ask a black female whether she can be subjective covering a black female.”

More than anything, Ifill loved her work. Her friends, colleagues, and generations of young women will remember her as a model of intelligence, ambition, and fair reporting. The news reporting community is keenly aware of their loss.

“Any black woman who has ever thought of being a journalist who dares to write about politics and race in America owes this woman a debt of gratitude. Gwen didn't grow up with someone like her to admire and aspire to,” Errin Haines Whack of the Associated Press wrote in the NBC tribute.

“Because she was, so many of us are. We knew we could do it, and only hoped to be able to do it half as well as she did.”

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