Gwen Ifill, the longtime PBS news anchor who had served as a co-host of the “PBS NewsHour” and as moderator of “Washington Week,” has died after a battle with cancer, PBS has confirmed. She was 61.
“It is with extremely heavy hearts that we must share that our dear friend and beloved colleague Gwen Ifill passed away this afternoon following several months of cancer treatment,” PBS NewsHour said in a statement on Monday. “She was surrounded by loving family and many friends whom we ask that you keep in your thoughts and prayers.”
“I am very sad to tell you that our dear friend and beloved colleague Gwen Ifill passed away today in hospice care in Washington,” WETA President and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller wrote in an email to staff at the public TV station Monday. “I spent an hour with her this morning and she was resting comfortably, surrounded by loving family and friends … Earlier today, I conveyed to Gwen the devoted love and affection of all of us at WETA/NewsHour. Let us hold Gwen and her family even closer now in our hearts and prayers.”
Ifill had been absent from PBS’s election coverage last week because of ongoing health issues. She also took a leave of absence in May to address those issues.
“Gwen was a standard bearer for courage, fairness and integrity in an industry going through seismic change. She was a mentor to so many across the industry and her professionalism was respected across the political spectrum. She was a journalist’s journalist and set an example for all around her,” said PBS NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just in a statement.
“So many people in the audience felt that they knew and adored her. She had a tremendous combination of warmth and authority. She was stopped on the street routinely by people who just wanted to give her a hug and considered her a friend after years of seeing her on TV. We will forever miss her terribly.”
On Wednesday, Ifill was to receive the 2016 John Chancellor Award from Columbia University. A spokesperson for the university did not immediately have a comment.
Ifill, who was born in New York City, graduated from Simmons College, a women’s college located in Boston, in 1977, before beginning her career at the Boston Herald-American. She held reporting positions at the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC before becoming a moderator of PBS’s “Washington Week in Review” in 1999.
Ifill’s first book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” was released on the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. One of the most visible African-American female broadcast journalists, she received more than 20 honorary doctorates, had been honored by the Peabody Awards, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center and the National Association of Black Journalists among others. She also served on the boards of the News Literacy Project, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and was a fellow with the American Academy of Sciences.
Ifill’s acclaimed career was also marked by the obstacles she overcame as a black woman in the news business. As an intern at the Boston Herald-American, a staffer left a note that included a racial epithet telling her to “go home”; Ifill would go on to be the only black moderator and the only woman moderating the 2004 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, and then the 2008 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Ifill also moderated a primary debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton last year.
She faced accusations of bias for not appearing excited about Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008, and for her book about Obama, charges that PBS rejected. She once recalled to The Washington Post that a journalist asked her whether she was “in the tank” for Obama, presumably because of her race. “I’m still capable of looking at his pros and cons in a political sense,” Ifill said at the time. “No one’s ever assumed a white reporter can’t cover a white candidate.”
Ifill was outspoken about the barriers she broke through and was aware of her influence on young viewers.
“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 said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times, after she and Judy Woodruff were named the first female co-anchors of NewsHour. “No women. No people of color. 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.”
Ifill served on the board of the Harvard Institute of Politics and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She was also a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Museum of Television and Radio.
“She was a newspaper reporter through and through,” said an emotional NBC News correspondent Pete Williams as he reported on Ifill’s death on MSNBC. “She had so many rewards and awards in her office you could barely see out the window. She was one of the most successful women in journalism.”
“Gwen was a friend of ours,” President Obama said at a Monday afternoon news conference. “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. 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’s deck, she not only informed today’s citizens but she also inspired tomorrow’s journalists. She was an especially powerful role model for young women and girls who admired her integrity, tenacity and intellect and for whom she blazed a trail as one-half of the first all-female anchor team on network news. Gwen did her country a great service. Michelle and I join her family and her colleagues and everybody else who loved her in remembering her fondly today.”
“We can’t expect the world to get better by itself. We have to create something we can leave the next generation,” Ifill told the Washingtonian after being named its “2015 Washingtonian of the Year.”
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Magazine