Gwen Ifill, the award-winning journalist and anchor of the public television news programs “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week” whose career included moderating the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, died of cancer Monday, according to a statement released by PBS. She was 61.
Citing health problems, Ifill had taken a two-month leave of absence from her duties at PBS in April while she was undergoing treatment, but she returned in May. In early November, she again went on leave from the network for health reasons.
“Gwen was one of America’s leading lights in journalism and a fundamental reason public media is considered a trusted window on the world by audiences across the nation,” Paula Kerger, president and chief executive of PBS, said in a statement. “Her contributions to thoughtful reporting and civic discourse simply cannot be overstated.”
On Wednesday, Ifill had been scheduled to be presented with the John Chancellor Award by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, an honor that recognizes cumulative career accomplishments in the field. Ifill was to be the first African American to accept the award in its 21-year history.
“Gwen Ifill’s career embodies the best of our profession … her unflinching pursuit of the truth, healthy skepticism of those in power and her commitment to fairness,” said the dean of Columbia’s journalism school, Steve Coll, who was on the nine-person jury that decided the award.
In opening a news conference Monday afternoon, President Obama said Ifill “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.”
“Gwen Ifill was a legend,” Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi wrote in a statement. “In covering presidential campaigns, reporting from the White House, moderating debates, and providing insight as a political analyst, Gwen’s voice provided the calm and clarity our country needed.”
Since 2013, Ifill teamed with Judy Woodruff as co-anchor and served as co-managing editor of “PBS NewsHour,” which was the first television news program to be led by two women journalists. The significance of the position was not lost on her.
“When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way,” she told the New York Times in 2013. “I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy [Woodruff] 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.”
“There are those of us who did not even think of doing this work until we laid eyes on Gwen Ifill,” wrote NPR correspondent and “All Things Considered” co-host Audie Cornish on Twitter on Monday morning. “Her sensitivity and insight will be sorely missed. Especially now.”
Born in New York City as the fifth of six children of a Panamanian-born father who was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and a mother born in Barbados, Ifill’s family frequently moved around the northeast United States during her childhood. She graduated from Simmons College in Boston in 1977 with a degree in communications, and her journalism career began in college with an internship at the Boston Herald (then the Herald-American). After a coworker left a hateful note for her with a racist slur, her editors were so embarrassed by the incident that she was hired upon graduation.
“I learned my lesson: Take the job that is offered to you,” Ifill said while recounting the incident at a discussion hosted by Texas Christian University in 2012. “No matter how you get in the door, just get in there.”
Ifill eventually moved on to cover politics for the Baltimore Evening Sun followed by working at the Washington Post and the New York Times, where she was hired in 1991 to cover Congress and, eventually, the White House. In 1994, after being what she described as “dared” by her friend and colleague Tim Russert to switch to TV, she joined NBC to cover Capitol Hill. Five years later, she moved to PBS as the host of “Washington Week,” becoming the first black woman to host a major political talk show on TV.
“She’s a wonderful, classy lady and a great journalist,” Russert, NBC’s then-Washington bureau chief told the Washington Post upon Ifill’s departure from the network in 1999. “She understands the flow and the nuance of politics. She doesn’t play gotcha, no cheap shots.” (Russert died in 2008.)
Though possessing a reserved, level-headed demeanor onscreen, Ifill was not afraid to speak candidly. In a 2007 appearance on “Meet the Press,” she called out both Russert and guest David Brooks for not denouncing racial slurs by radio host Don Imus about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. “A lot of people did know [about Imus’ comments] and a lot of people were listening and they just decided it was OK,” Ifill said on the broadcast. “They decided this culture of meanness was fine — until they got caught.”
During the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards in 2004, Ifill posed a question about the then-vice president’s dealings with Halliburton. “I can respond, Gwen, but it’s going to take more than 30 seconds,” Cheney said.
“Well, that’s all you’ve got,” Ifill replied.
In 2008, Ifill spoke to the Washington Post and resisted the notion that she was being curt with the vice president, and went on to moderate the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.
With the election of President Obama, Ifill’s standing as a trailblazer in her field also led her to frequently being asked to speak for her community, a position she resisted. “My job is to be a reporter. I cannot be the great interpreter,” Ifill told the Washington Post in 2008. “It’s not my job to be on someone else’s air telling them what black people think.”