By Monesha Woods
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Days after Gwen Ifill was laid to rest in a star-studded funeral at which First Lady Michelle Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder paid their respects, tributes to the award-winning journalist continue to pour in.
As many struggle to process her sudden death, focus has turned to the legacy that’s now left behind by the media icon, who broke racial barriers with her excellence instead of her race.
Ifill, who died Nov. 14, after a battle with cancer, spent decades climbing the ranks from print journalist to news anchor and famed political moderator. Ifill began as an intern at the Boston Herald-American while a student at Simmons College in 1977, a position that exposed her to opportunity and overt racism in the workplace.
The native New Yorker went on to work for several networks and newspapers including the Washington Post, Baltimore Evening Sun, and the New York Times. Ultimately she became a trusted voice and face of political commentary.
Gwen Ifill is probably best known as moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” on PBS as well as her role alongside Judy Woodruff as co-anchor and co-managing editor of the NewsHour on PBS. They were the first women to co-anchor network nightly news.
Last spring, she and Woodruff moderated the Democratic primary debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. Gwen Ifill had performed that role solo during vice presidential debates in the 2004 and 2008 general election campaigns.
She was widely known and highly respected in journalistic circles – even by the politicians she covered.
“She was an extraordinary journalist. She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession – asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable, and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work,” President Barack Obama told reporters in the White House Press Room Nov. 14. “I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting, even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough and thorough interviews. Whether she reported from a convention floor or from the field, whether she sat at the debate moderator’s table or at the anchor desk, she not only informed today’s citizens, but she also inspired tomorrow’s journalists.”
Obviously never one to be deterred, Ifill discussed how she pushed past the racism that could have held her back.
“You don’t transcend being Black,” she said in a 1999 interview with the Washington Post. “You broaden someone’s stereotype of what it means to be Black. There are people who get nervous when you bring up the subject of race because we’re schooled in this country to think it’s a negative. I always think of it as a plus.”
Ifill leaves journalism and media professors with a solid example for their students. Reflecting on her legacy this week, several spoke of how she will continue to teach by example.
“She was a quintessential example of what professional journalism is all about while at the same time keeping close connection to the fact that she is a Black journalist,” said journalist and author A. Peter Bailey, who has taught journalism and Black Press history at the University of the District of Columbia. “She showed that there is no contradiction between being a journalist and being a Black journalist. You can have the interest of Black people at heart and still maintain your journalistic ethics. Gwen was a quintessential example of that,” said Bailey.
Yanick Rice Lamb, associate professor and chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, told The Hilltop that Gwen Ifill appeared to represent what it means to have it all.
“She was at the top of my list of ‘together sisters’ — naturally confident, smart, friendly, supportive and cool,” she said. “I loved watching her on television and especially moderating political debates. Gwen made what appeared to be a seamless and successful transition from print to broadcast journalism — not an easy feat. She willingly shared her expertise with young journalists and the young at heart — dispensing sound wisdom and answering any and all questions. I’m glad that many Howard students had a chance to meet her.”
Ifill was born in Queens, New York on September 29, 1955 to a father who was a pastor and emigrated from Panama, and a mother who was from Barbados. Though she and her five siblings grew up poor and moved around with occasional stints in subsidized housing, the newscaster said that their parents instilled the importance of being well-versed in world affairs.
As a result, Ifill discovered her passion for journalism at a young age and eventually embarked on a lifelong journey to prominence. After graduation from Simmons College, the veteran contributor landed her first job with the Boston Herald-American. Before long, she started covering politics for the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post, and then the New York Times where she took on Congress and the White House.
Then, Gwen Ifill made the jump to television when she covered Capitol Hill for NBC in 1994. Just five years later, she moved to PBS, where she would spend the rest of her career, to host “Washington Week.” Ifill would go on to moderate the 2004 and 2012 Vice Presidential debates and began co-hosting Newshour with Judy Woodruff in 2013.
E.R. Shipp, Associate Professor at Morgan State University, observed how ferociously Gwen Ifill challenged the glass ceilings of discrimination.
“She broke barriers both as a woman and a Black person. Right now, we’re seeing retrenchment as many media companies are changing the focus of their work and reacting to economic realities by downsizing. Many of those most affected by that are people of color. The fact that she broke barriers inspires a lot of us though there are still a lot of barriers to be broken.
A. Peter Bailey echoed this sentiment, saying Ifill’s legacy will be that of a stand-bearer for African-American journalists.
“Gwen Ifill is one of the best examples that you can provide of someone who conclusively proved that this whole idea that you have to be a journalist who happens to be Black in order to cover certain things is erroneous. She was a thorough professional.”
It is Ifill herself who leaves the clearest description of how she wants to be remembered. She told The HistoryMakers on March 8, 2012: “I don’t think much about legacy because I guess I’m not there yet. I would like for another generation of young Black women to look at me and say, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I would like for young Black men to look at me and say, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I would like for young White girls to look at me and say, ‘Oh, I can do that,’…Not because they’re color blind, but because color is just part of the thing that informs them about who I am.”