Gwen Ifill’s Death Means Losing an Icon Just When We Needed Her Most
by Lauren C. Williams –
At a time when race is no longer a subtext of American politics, voices like hers are needed more than ever.
Eight years ago, I met Gwen Ifill at a media party just as the 2008 Republican National Convention kicked off in Minneapolis. It seems so fitting in hindsight: Here I was, a cub reporter working on my master’s degree in journalism, getting my first taste of covering national politics during what I thought was the craziest election possible at a time that almost every media expert would agree was an unequivocally historic low for the industry as a whole. (Remember those days?)
I had maybe two dozen professional bylines to my name at the time, but somehow I ended up standing in front of Ms. Ifill on a dimly lit rooftop in downtown Minneapolis.
I met a lot of media elites that night, but my introduction to Ms. Ifill remains paramount. You know that feeling when you’re finally allowed to take your parents car out solo or you get to sit at the adult table during Thanksgiving? A mix of anxiety, dread, and unbridled excitement. That’s how I felt in front of her.
I don’t even remember what we were talking about because I was too busy grinning uncontrollably. But I do remember her kind smile and the way it radiated — something that those who knew her often describe. She was small in stature (like me!), and comfortably leaned in immediately after we were introduced like we were old friends. We laughed as someone daringly asked if former New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson’s shoulder tattoo was real. (It was.) It’s safe to assume that we talked about politics, media, or work tangentially. That I probably managed to say something witty and laugh at the appropriate times before being whisked off to meet another group of journalists.
I didn’t have cable TV growing up so I mainly watched network and public programming. And for decades, Ms. Ifill’s face frequently flashed across my television. Her career as a political reporter and White House correspondent spanned multiple outlets, including NBC News, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
Recalling our brief meeting brings an old adage to mind: that people may forget what you said or did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. I still remember how my face burned with eagerness and awe of meeting a woman who was everything I wanted to be.
As the host of Washington Week in Review, Ms. Ifill was the first African-American woman to host a major political television talk show in 1999. Fourteen years later, she joined the first all-female broadcast news anchor team on the PBS NewsHour.
She was a beacon of excellence — black excellence — of which any reporter would want to aspire to be. I used to divorce the two, thinking that as a black female journalist, I only needed validation from an objective color- and genderless standard. That such validation had to supersede, or in some way downplay, my identity. But Ms. Ifill did both. She was a formidable journalist who held people in power accountable for their ideas, policies, beliefs, and proclaimed knowledge. She was also a rarity — a pioneering black female reporter on public television — in a field that is still dominated by white men, and confident in who she was and her voice.
During a commencement speech at American University in 2014, Ms. Ifill said she “was drawn to journalism because of the need to be the necessary voice — not to force my opinions on others but to broaden the stage for the debate.”
That voice was absent from the final stages of this election cycle — and the void was palpable. Although Ms. Ifill was a fixture during the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, and moderated the preliminary Democratic presidential debates last year between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, this year I found myself repeatedly asking, “Where is Gwen Ifill?” I like to think that if she had been moderating the presidential debates, Donald Trump would have had to answer tough policy questions about his proposed Muslim ban, his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and his ideas about how to improve the lives of black people.
News of Ms. Ifill’s cancer-caused death at 61 was as heartbreaking as this entire election cycle.
Ifill wrote the best-selling book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama — and her passing came just a week after Donald Trump, who was catapulted from atypical presidential candidate to president-elect, punctuated the end of a significant and tumultuous era in American politics. Trump’s rise to the highest elected office was rooted in the very injustices Ms. Ifill’s career and voice in political journalism fought to break down.
The nation’s first black president is currently transferring executive power to a person who built a campaign that questioned his citizenship and repeatedly hurled thinly veiled attacks on Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, and women. If this election has proven anything, it’s that race is not just awkward or impolite dinner talk, it’s an integral part of national politics.
For me, Ms. Ifill’s steadfastness and tenacity were proof that representation in media matters. That one voice can be a force of reason and truth. And now, voices like hers are needed more than ever before.
As she told those young American University journalism graduates, “Your necessary voice can invest in the power of possibility. You can relish the unexpected. You can claim the path you never really intended to take. And there is a lot of work to be done.”