Five Things to Know About Gwen Ifill

The late, great reporter turned curiosity into a career that changed journalism

Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill died today. She was 61. PBS NewsHour - Flickr

Journalists and news nerds everywhere paused today to mourn the death of Gwen Ifill, who died of cancer today at age 61. The journalist—a preacher’s daughter from New York city who translated her curiosity and wit into a career spanning four decades of reporting and broadcasting—is being memorialized as nothing less than a news legend. Here are five things to know about her life and legacy:

Her career in journalism got off to a nasty start

Ifill, who became interested in journalism as a nightly news viewer, studied news writing at Simmons College. But her first foot in the door was marked with an ugly racist incident. While serving as an intern at the Boston Herald American, a fellow staffer left her a note that used a racial slur and told her to go home. Her bosses at the paper were reportedly so embarrassed by the incident that they offered her a full-time job.

Despite that bumpy start—and the fact that the only job available was writing about food—Ifill translated that job into positions at increasingly prestigious newspapers and began to cover politics.

Housing helped make her the reporter she was  

The budding reporter, who herself lived in federally subsidized housing as a child, spent much of her early career reporting on housing. Throughout the 1980s, she wrote hundreds of articles that tracked people’s efforts to obtain affordable housing and local and national fights to secure housing funding through subsidies. That also extended to coverage of homelessness and life in public housing.

In the late '80s, Ifill covered the dramatic and unfolding story of political favoritism under the Department of Urban Housing and Development. In a November 1989 piece for The Washington Post she mused, “From the beginning the HUD story had to be peeled away layer by layer…The fault lies everywhere.” Though Ifill cut her teeth on other political stories over the years, housing helped shape the tough reporter she was.

She made journalism history 

As Ifill climbed the journalistic ladder, she had a chance to make history. After becoming a national political reporter for the Post and The New York Times’ White House correspondent, she began working for NBC and on PBS. In 2013, her work with PBS became historic when she took over the PBS NewsHour with fellow news vet Judy Woodruff. The duo became the first two-woman anchor team on a major news program in television history.

“Gwen and Judy have been the heart and soul of [the show] for years,” said the show’s executive producer in response. As co-anchors, Ifill and Woodruff also served as the show’s managing editors, directing its response to current events and its coverage decisions.

Ifill also made news history in another arena: as the first African-American woman to moderate vice-presidential debates. “Everybody thinks they can do your job,” she wrote later. “Suffice it to say this is as tough a job as I have ever had.”

Here’s what she had to say about bias

“I don’t believe in objectivity, I believe in fairness,” Ifill said in an interview. “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.” At the same time, she said, “inserting myself in the story…doesn’t make sense.”

Nonetheless, Ifill did not entirely escape scrutiny and criticism for her work. She was chastened by the PBS ombudsman last year about a tweet about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On another occasion, the ombudsman noted that she had been criticized for appearing biased against now-former Governor Sarah Palin, but dismissed the concerns. “Reporters are there to ask questions and report,” he wrote. “That’s what they do.”

She saw her career as a step forward for women of color 

Ifill never forgot where she came from—or the slur-filled correspondence her work was often greeted with. Nevertheless, she viewed her career as step forward for women of color. "When I was a little girl watching programs like this...I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color,” she told The New York Times’ Brian Stelter in 2013. “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.”

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