I am no journalist, but as someone passionate about government and politics, I considered Gwen Ifill, who died a week ago on Monday, a role model and inspirational figure. This reporter and anchor for the PBS NewsHour impressed upon me the seriousness of each story she told.
In 2008, Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate between then-Senator Joe Biden and then-Governor Sarah Palin. I knew of her before then, but I don’t consciously remember any particular news stories she had reported. Perhaps that’s a testament to her ability to keep our attention on her subject, not herself. I could put a name with a face though. After that debate, her spirit of skepticism (with a healthy dose of comedy) was immortalized by Queen Latifah in an SNL sketch that is still on a repeating loop in my head.
Ifill hosted Washington Week, a Friday program that wrapped up the week in national politics. By the end of my week, when I wanted to decompress and had access to a TV, I could rely on that show to give me a dose of politics – and not the five pundits yelling at each other kind – that I wanted as a political science student.
I thought it was awesome when Ifill and fellow journalist Judy Woodruff became co-anchors of the NewsHour in 2013. Women taking over the news! Ifill and Woodruff were co-managing editors and decision makers for each night’s newscast! As a woman of color and daughter of immigrants, Ifill remains a role model who shows the importance of determination and hard work in journalism, broadcasting, and writing. This is something that Gwen Ifill took to heart. In an interview with civil rights leader Julian Bond, she said: “…and to this day, when people approach me and tell me that they’re glad to see me on television because they have daughters who see me… that makes my day. That’s what I want to know. The sense of possibility.”
In her acceptance speech for the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award in 2015, Ifill shared some of her beliefs about journalism: “At our best, we are all truth-tellers, although sometimes imperfect ones. At our best, we reject bias and understand that the most dangerous bias is found in the stories we do not tell.” Gwen Ifill helped viewers learn new things and adjust our own lenses when she selected the coverage through her own unique worldview.
In the most basic way, Ifill is important to women’s history by the fact she accomplished a “first.” More importantly, she helped change the symbols of the newscast and anchor. Ifill spoke to this in her interview with Bond. She said she saw herself as “exploding myths about who we are….My presence explodes a lot of notions… about what limitations are.”
For historians, her work matters. In a time when TV news can be loud, theatrical, ideological, and sometimes incendiary, we must be wary of our sources. When we look back on the early 21st century, I hope we’ll view Gwen Ifill’s journalism as a credible, reliable source. As scholars seeking answers, we’ll know that she wasn’t a reporter pitching softball questions to our leaders, and we’ll thank her for asking the questions she did.
Thank you, Gwen Ifill, for your service.