The life and death of the legendary Gwen Ifill

Illustration by Skye Ali
Illustration by Skye Ali
Illustration by Skye Ali
Illustration by Skye Ali

Gwen Ifill, venerated journalist who repeatedly broke the glass ceiling of gender and race in the media, died at the age of 61 in Washington state on Nov. 14 2016, after a year-long battle with endometrial cancer.

As a child, Ifill and her siblings were encouraged to be politically aware and active. On a 2015 episode of PBS’s “The History Makers,” Ifill told Michelle Morris how television and politics  strongly influenced her future career.

“We watched (political) conventions for recreation. This was an extension of the fact that my parents thought that what happened in American politics and government mattered,” Ifill told the live audience. “Imagine watching T.V. when Barbara Jordan gets up and speaks, and you’re a little black girl watching at home.”

Jordan was a leading civil rights activist, lawyer and the first Black woman elected to the Texas state and United States senate. Little did Ifill know that she would one day be likened to her childhood idol.

Ifill’s career began in the late 1970’s as a reporter for the Boston Herald-American, but it wasn’t until she worked at the Baltimore Evening Sun that she first began delving into news and politics.

She remarked that the transition to political reporting did not come without its challenges, and that the organizations of older white men didn’t know know how to react to her presence — an educated African American woman who was excelling in her field — and the racist threats she received were often ignored by executives.

Ifill became a major political reporter for The Washington Post and New York Times in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s. Her ability to ask poignant, honest questions while remaining approachable to a large audience only further progressed her journalism career.

Ifill branched into broadcast journalism as a congressional correspondent for NBC in 1994. In 1999 she became senior correspondent for “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and the moderator and editor of “Washington Week.”

In 2004, Ifill became the first Black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate. In 2013, she and Woodruff became the first women to anchor a nightly network newscast as the co-anchors and co-managing editors of “The PBS NewsHour.”


“She came through the screen as a friend to people who watched her, but she also displayed the authority for people to believe you,” Woodruff said in an interview with The Washington Post.  “She didn’t mind telling anyone when she thought they were wrong on camera. She kept it respectful. She was one of the most graceful interrupters I have ever seen.”

On the same day of her passing, President Barack Obama remembered Ifill when he spoke to her colleagues at a press conference before departing for his final overseas trip.

“I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting even when I was at the receiving end of her tough questions,” said President Obama in a press conference. “She not only informed today’s citizens, but inspired tomorrow’s journalists.”

CNN anchor Don Lemon had an especially tearful tribute to Ifill, who he first met as student in the mid-1990’s.

You were simply brilliant and powerful,” Lemon said. “A quiet storm, professional, understated, humble.”

Ifill pursued journalism to not only search for the truth but to make the news accessible for as many people as possible. In a 2014 commencement  address to American University’s Public Affairs College, Ifill spoke on the why she  pushed through various setbacks and prejudice and in name of journalistic integrity and inclusiveness.

“Whose stories can you tell? Whose voices are not being heard? Who gets to decide which stories and voices get ignored? And what are you willing to do about it?” Ifill said. “Personally, I have a flat spot right in the front of my head from trying to break down walls my entire career, forcing diversity of thought and opinion into newsrooms and onto the air.”

David Brooks penned a tribute article to Ifill in the New York Times, capturing  the importance of her presence in the news industry.

She has left a chasm which nobody else can fill up and which nobody has a tendency to fill,” Brooks said.


Siona Peterous. Photo by Julie TrippSiona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram


Skye LimSkye Ali
Skye is a senior majoring in Communication Arts and minoring in Psychology. She is passionate about illustration and finding creative spaces to have open discussions about mental illness. A fervent animal lover, she would probably be a herpetologist in another life.
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