Laura Washington: Remembering the great Gwen Ifill
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Did you know her?
In the wake of Gwen Ifill’s passing last week, many people have asked me that question.
It’s a natural assumption. We are both African-American women spawned and shaped by the civil rights era. Multi-media journalists who love to question issues of politics, social justice and race.
No, we never shared space or time. But I was honored to know her.
I knew Ifill from her incisive, award-winning reportage and interviewing on PBS. I watched, admired and aspired to her quiet sense of justice.
The groundbreaking journalist died last week at 61, losing a battle with uterine cancer.
I knew Ifill from her influential perches as co-anchor and co-managing editor of the PBS “NewsHour” and moderator of the “Washington Week.”
They were the pinnacles of a spectacular and unblemished journalism career. Her resume included notable reporting tours at the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post and The New York Times, where she covered her first political convention. She covered Capitol Hill for NBC, then on to PBS.
No other black woman has covered that territory.
Not bad for a black girl born in Queens to Caribbean immigrants. Her father, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, moved the family from town to town with new assignments, from church parsonages to public housing.
Ifill was proud of her religious upbringing. Her conservative, no-frills style elevated her above the political swamp of Washington, D.C. She was a TV star but never a talking head. Her charismatic smile and no-nonsense news nose transcended the screen.
We are in an all-about-me age of Facebook public figure journalists who trade in tweets and punditry.
Ifill was tough, and fairer than fair. At a time when media credibility is dangerously thin, she was a singularly trusted news source.
I relied on her thoughtful analysis of politics and government. When she disappeared from the campaign trail a few weeks before the Nov. 8 election, I knew the news could not be good.
Ifill kept people guessing. “I got my first job by exceeding expectations,” she once said. “This is the way it is. How do I get around it, get through it, surprise them?”
In a 2004 vice-presidential debate, she famously queried Dick Cheney and John Edwards on what government should do to end a raging AIDS epidemic among black women. They had no clue.
Ifill’s last story was the election. It ended with a nation in a deep racial divide.
For hope, I turn to an interview she gave as the nation’s first black president was headed to the White House. Ifill was asked: Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
“If you consider race to be a positive, as I do, a wonderful characteristic which makes you who you are. Which gives you a set of cultural norms and backgrounds,” she argued. “It is not a threat. It is not taking anything away from anybody else. It’s just part of what shapes me.”
She added: “It would be enhancing if we as a nation, and as a world, I guess, could talk about race in a way that wasn’t about blame and redress, and argument and guilt.”
Instead, “we should just embrace it as a factor, not everything of what we are.”
Follow Laura Washington on Twitter: @MediaDervish