Of all the stories that Gwen Ifill covered, there was one that she cared not to break. That was her own. “She wanted to keep it quiet,” said CNN political analyst Gloria Borger moments ago. She was talking about Ifill’s death, at 61, after a fight with cancer.
At the time of her death, Ifill was co-host of PBS’s “NewsHour” as well as moderator of “Washington Week.” She had taken a medical leave last spring. “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 Chief Executive Sharon Percy Rockefeller wrote to colleagues 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.”
And in a statement, “NewsHour” executive producer Sara Just said, in part, “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.”
Allow the Erik Wemple Blog to second Just’s assessment. An episodic consumer of the “NewsHour,” this blog enjoyed its depth, curiosity and reasonableness — traits that came straight from Ifill. Even when the program’s work veered a bit off track — putting it under the prying eyes of this blog — it did so while in pursuit of serious and lasting journalism. And in a world where TV anchors commonly hide behind PR types, Ifill simply answered the emails that we sent her. Done!
Folks who watch cable news all day might have had trouble acclimating themselves to Ifill’s markedly calm approach to distilling the news. “Shouting is a good way to foment conflict, but it’s not the best way to inform,” she said in 1999.
Perhaps she felt no need to shout because she knew stuff. Though lots of TV talent like to fancy themselves print journalists, that’s what Ifill actually was at heart. She had worked at The Post, the New York Times and other outlets. As she progressed in her career, she became wiser and quite succinct. In 2008, before moderating the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Ifill engaged in this exchange in a Post chat:
Motor Mouth: Have you interviewed Biden before? How in the world has he survived as a national politician for three decades without censoring his mouth? He seems to spurt out whatever he’s thinking at the moment without filtering it in any manner. Has there ever been a politician like this on the national stage?
Gwen Ifill: I have interviewed Sen. Biden, and I believe you overstate.
Ifill also moderated a vice-presidential debate in 2004.
One way to memorialize Ifill: Check the video at top, from her first night as moderator of “Washington Week.” The discussion includes then-New York Times reporter Richard Berke, then-CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times and Michael Duffy of Time magazine. Not in attendance were paid political hacks and shallow discussion.