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Opinion Gwen Ifill is forever now

The Gwen Ifill Black Heritage Commemorative Forever Stamp unveiled by the Postal Service at a ceremony in Washington on Thursday. (Michael A. Mccoy/AP)
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This article is adapted from the writer’s remarks at the stamp unveiling ceremony on Jan. 30 at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.

You can now walk into the Post Office and order a stamp with a smiling image of the late journalist Gwen Ifill as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series.

Talk about on-time delivery.

This is a spectacular honor for Gwen, who before she died in 2016 co-anchored “PBS NewsHour” and hosted “Washington Week.” But it also happens to be a fitting and timely tribute to the importance of fair and balanced journalism at a pivotal moment in our history. If Gwen were alive, she most certainly would have used her platform to address the limitations on reporters covering the Senate impeachment trial or the unwarranted and unjustified attack against NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly.

Gwen died at age 61 just as the concept of “fake news” was injected into the American lexicon. She would have ushered that to the door like an unwelcome guest — not with violence or bombast, but with grace, dignity and facts.

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Gwen was both a standard-bearer and pacesetter in journalism. She was a voice of calm and credibility. She spoke up on behalf of journalistic integrity, and she spoke out when she thought the media industry was moving in the wrong direction. She would pick up the phone or shoot an email with a gentle admonishment for reporters to step away from the keyboard when they were less than objective on their social media feeds. She stood up to bullies, asked questions that others avoided and reminded people that adjectives such as “racially infused” or “race-laden” were lazy ways to address actual racism.

She supported news literacy projects and confronted editors and producers who valued conflict over context as they increasingly veered toward a model where people on air say what they think instead of conveying what they know.

Though she herself was a frequent guest on the Sunday morning public-affairs shows, she bristled when anyone tried to call her a pundit. She wasn’t there to offer opinions. She was there to share information, based on reporting and research and reaching out to people at all stations in life. She demonstrated that ethos on “Washington Week,” surrounding herself with reporters who had actually gone out into the world to cover the stories of that week.

The year before she died, Gwen received a journalism award in Italy, and she used the ceremony to deliver a love letter to reporters and editors.

“We get a bad rap sometimes,” she said. “Often it is deserved. But that is because bad news travels well. Less told are the stories of the imprisoned journalists who risk their lives to do their work in Iran and China and Ethiopia — hundreds behind bars around the world. Less understood is the work that relies on data-crunching and Freedom of Information Act requests and the willingness to challenge your own government. And less appreciated is the work done by journalists who cover zoning boards and city councils and school boards — the stuff that really affects our lives on a daily basis.”

Gwen knew that because she did all those things. Before she became a big-time TV star and a White House correspondent, she worked as a local print reporter in Boston and Baltimore and for The Post. That’s where we met. She wound up being my closest friend, maid of honor in my wedding, godmother to one of my kids. For three decades, we figured out how to live within a five-block radius of each other to create what we called “found family.”

One of the interesting things about traveling with her was seeing how many people — newsmakers, strangers, red caps at the airport, no matter the state — greeted her like a longtime friend. She was tough to be sure, but she had an approachable warmth. And she had earned their trust and their admiration.

Gwen would have called the unveiling of the stamp a “colored girl moment.” That was the shorthand we used to describe improbable developments that we could have never imagined as little black girls growing up in the ’60s when America was just getting used to the idea of integration. She now joins a distinguished pantheon in the black heritage stamp lineup, which includes Harriet Tubman, Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Langston Hughes.

Gwen left us too soon, but let’s hope her brand of journalism and her model of integrity never goes out of style, much like the word “forever” on the stamp that bears her face and name.

Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: How Cleve Jones, Frederick Douglass and Gwen Ifill can help you cope with Trump

Adam Bernstein: Gwen Ifill, who overcame barriers as a black female journalist, dies at 61

Jonathan Capehart: Standing taller because of Gwen Ifill

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