Gwen Ifill was a groundbreaking journalist who made a name for herself in television. She was best known for hosting the PBS Newshour and covered the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. Throughout three decades for The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC and most recently PBS. She died on Monday at a hospice in Washington at the age of 61.
The cause of death was complications due to uterine cancer, according to Ifill’s brother Roberto.
Throughout her distinguished career, Ms. Ifill was in the forefront of a journalism vanguard in an industry that was dominated by white men. She helped to pave the way for many young women who aspired to be leaders in the world of journalism.
She had achieved her highest visibility most recently as the moderator and managing editor of the public affairs program Washington Week on PBS. She was also the co-anchor and co-managing editor of NewsHour along with Judy Woodruff. The nightly news program competed with major broadcast and cable networks for viewership. They were the first all-female anchor team on network nightly news.
This past Spring, Ifill and Woodruiff were moderators of a Democratic primary debate between the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. This was a role that Ms. Ifill had performed solo during the vice-presidential candidates in the 2004 and 2008 general election campaigns.
Along with her substantial career in journalism, Gwen Ifill also wrote the book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. The book was published the day that President Obama was inaugurated in 2009.
The president spoke at a news conference this past Monday and spoke fondly of Ms. Ifill saying, “Gwen was a friend of ours. 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.”
Ifill’s co-anchor Judy Woodruff described her as “a fiend about facts” who “loved storytelling and loved helping people understand what was going on in the world around them.” She added, “For young women of color looking for a role model, she was it.”
Ms. Ifill had taken a month-long leave of absence from PBS NewsHour this year without disclosing her medical condition. She went on leave again a week ago, missing election night coverage. Long-time viewers of the program deeply missed her commentary during this critical and complex election season, and her opinion would have been of great value to all those who normally tune-in to the program.
On Oct. 7, though, in an online column for PBS titled “The End Is in Sight,” she volunteered some parting wisdom for candidates that, unwittingly, might have proved prescient for Mrs. Clinton.
“Once a candidate, they can no longer claim outsider status, and he or she begins to look more ambitious than chaste,” Ms. Ifill wrote. “Hillary Clinton was a popular secretary of state, but now she is just Hillary Clinton. There’s something about actually wanting a thing that makes voters think less of you.”
Gwen Ifill was the daughter of Caribbean immigrants and knew from an early age that she wanted to grow up to be a journalist.
“I was very conscious of the world being this very crazed place that demanded explanation,” she recalled in a 2011 interview with the Archive of American Television.
“I didn’t see a whole lot of people who looked like me doing it on television,” she added, but “you get used to being underestimated.”
“I got my first job by exceeding expectations,” she said. And she kept going: “This is the way it is. How do I get around it, get through it, surprise them?”
Gwendolyn L. Ifill (she loathed her middle name and refused to reveal it) was born on Sept. 29, 1955, in Jamaica, Queens, to the former Eleanor Husband and Oliver Urcille Ifill Sr., an A.M.E. minister.
With her father being periodically reassigned, she grew up in several places — Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, Buffalo, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — living in church parsonages and sometimes in federally subsidized housing.
“I knew who these people were because they were me,” she said of her public housing neighbors.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a former “NewsHour” correspondent and a pioneering African-American journalist, said that she and Ms. Ifill, both daughters of ministers, were equipped with a moral armor “that served her and me well as we traversed roads not usually traversed by women who looked like us.”
Ms. Ifill saw herself more as a reporter than as a news anchor, program host or moderator. She was reluctant at first to be installed behind a desk in a studio.
“I loved covering presidential politics not so much because of the candidates, but because of the people it allowed me to talk to,” she said.
Would she ever have wanted to become a candidate herself?
No, she replied. “It’s much more fun to watch and to ask than to actually have to account for your behavior.”