Remembering Gwen Ifill This Black History Month

Gwen Ifill, host of PBS’ ‘Washington Week’ and co-host of ‘NewsHour’ succumbed to cancer at age 61 on Nov. 14, 2016.
(Photo: Andrea Jacobson, The Observatory LLC)

Fame never changed Gwen Ifill.

“She was ‘regular’ in the best sense of the word,” recalls Kevin Merida, who met Ifill in the late 1970s when she was featured in a campus newspaper called Black Folk that he co-founded with other students at Boston University.

A year behind Ifill, who had graduated from nearby Simmons College, Merida and his friends were impressed with this rare black journalist making her mark in a racially polarized city and an industry dancing around diversity.

But what impressed Merida most was how Ifill remained the same as her career soared, from reporter stints at newspapers in Boston and Baltimore to covering national politics for The Washington Post and the White House for The New York Times.

She made a smooth transition from print to broadcast journalism, becoming moderator and managing editor of PBS’s Washington Week as well as co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour — the last positions she held before her death Nov. 14 of cancer at age 61.

Through it all, Ifill remained laid-back, good-natured and optimistic, with a smile to brighten any room. “She always had a cheery disposition,” Merida says. “I just loved that about her.”

Merida and Ifill reconnected in the 1980s, sharing a passion for political journalism that fed their friendship.

“We were always celebrating each other, toasting each other,” says Merida, who was managing editor of The Washington Post before moving to ESPN as a senior vice president and editor in chief of the network’s race, sports and culture site The Undefeated.

“She was always someone who was supportive of black journalists,” Merida says, and, of course, we were proud of her.”

Sonya Ross, race and ethnicity editor at the Associated Press, says Ifill was encouraging and set a great example for those who covered national politics and especially the White House.

“She brought dignity and grace,” Ross says. “I was able to navigate being a White House reporter. I was able to go in there and feel perfectly comfortable questioning presidents, because Gwen had done that.”

Ifill was always a role model for Candace Smith, who has been at ABC News for five years and was the only black reporter covering Donald Trump in the field for most of the presidential race.

“Growing up, if there was one name that I knew as a budding high school journalist, it was Gwen Ifill,” Smith says.

She likens Ifill’s impact to that of the first African-American woman to go into space. “She was the Mae Jemison of journalism, our own trailblazer, our pioneer,” Smith says. “She bushwhacked through that thorny thicket of racism and sexism and excelled. And she did it, not because she was black or a woman, though she was proud to be both, but because she was excellent.”

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SOURCE: USA Today – Yanick Rice Lamb