Celebrated PBS newscaster and Queens native Gwen Ifill was remembered for her incisive work in journalism by colleagues and President Barack Obama this week. Ifill died Monday at 61 after a battle with cancer.
Ifill was born on Sept. 29, 1955, in Jamaica to Urcille Ifill, Sr., an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Eleanor Ifill. She traveled widely as a young child due to the transitory nature of her father’s work, and she attended Simmons College in Boston. When she finished college, she started her career at the Boston Herald-American newspaper and later worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun, Washington Post and the New York Times.
She was best known for co-anchoring the PBS Newshour along with Judy Woodruff, and she also was the managing editor for Washington Week in Review, both on PBS. In addition, Ifill moderated the 2004 and 2008 vice presidential debates.
Ifill was fondly remembered by colleagues, including Woodruff, who recalled Ifill’s skills as a journalist and the companionship she offered as a friend.
“She was not only my dear friend, she was the best partner one can imagine, because she was committed to fairness and to the finest in journalism,” she said. “You always knew when working with Gwen that she had your back.”
Ifill took a leave of absence in April to deal with medical issues and took another absence last week in the midst of campaign coverage. She died surrounded by family and friends, PBS said.
Ifill was a steadfast proponent of clarity and analysis in journalism, a contrast to the rancor and volume that permeates much of the news industry. In a commencement address she gave in 2014 at the American University in Washington, D.C., she encouraged students to strive higher in public discourse.
“In that welter of noise, there is a way to be that middle voice, to be the person that searches for that middle ground and learns to articulate it, the person who calls racism, sexism and classism by its name everyday and not just when a rich sports team owner decides he’s going to say something outrageous,” Ifill said. “You can be the person who turns toward, not away from, the chance to rise above the fray.”
President Barack Obama warmly recalled Ifill in a press conference Monday.
“I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough and thorough interviews,” he said. “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 desk, she not only informed today’s citizens but she also inspired tomorrow’s journalists.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona