Op-ed: The unwavering tenacity, legacy of Gwen Ifill

Reporter Gwen Ifill at a rally in Erlanger, Ky. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

Reporter Gwen Ifill at a rally in Erlanger, Ky. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

By Elijah Tarik Powell | Published Dec. 9, 2016

The passing of Gwen Ifill at age 61 on Nov. 14 meant the journalism community lost one of its model figures. Her authenticity, respect for the craft and dedication to pursuing the truth resonated with me as a young journalism student.

Ifill went from dealing with petty prejudiced insults while interning at the Boston Herald American during her college years, to working at The Washington Post, The New York Times, and then venturing into broadcast journalism with PBS.

She became the first black woman to host a U.S. public affairs program that was nationally televised, hosting “Washington Week in Review” and then PBS “NewsHour.” As the years went by, she built a reputation for persistent and spot-on reporting.

“I suspect our nation will miss her especially at a time when the press is being criticized for its integrity, but she will always serve as a role model as bridge-builder, journalist, woman and person of color that helped open new doorways,” said Dr. Christopher Lynch, who teaches communication studies at Kean University. “She brought hope when the news always seemed bad. She broke many glass ceilings.”

I recently re-watched the debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, which Ifill mediated along with Judy Woodruff earlier this year. I realized the debate was so tense because both Clinton and Sanders were fumbling over their words trying to answer Ifill’s questions. They both tried to save face when Ifill rather bluntly forced them to stay on topic after their answers had spiraled into personal attacks.

During the Clinton-Sanders debate she flipped the script on the nominees after a question was
asked about race relations and challenged them to talk about it from the perspective of white people rather than just talking about what should be fixed about the black community.

“Many people would be surprised to find out that we are sitting in one of the most racially polarized metropolitan areas in the country,” said Ifill during the debate held in Milwaukee. “By the middle of the century the nation is going to be majority non-white, our public schools are already there. If working class white Americans were about to be outnumbered, are already under-employed in many cases, and one study found they are dying sooner, don’t they have a reason to be resentful, suddenly?”

She basically made a statement in the form of a question: That white people are as prejudice in present times because they fear a loss of power stemming from them being outnumbered in this country. It was awesome to see the nominees pick themselves up after being thrown off by such a blunt question and try to answer in the most politically correct way possible.

Such is the duty of anyone in the media: To challenge anyone in question to backup the image they are trying to sell the American audience. She went head on at what interviewees danced around or were afraid to answer. That is something I feel all journalists should aspire to do.

“She raised critical issues and always seemed to be fair and balanced,” said Dr. Lynch. “She radiated warmth and passion at the same time. Her interviewing style was direct, yet she created a dialogue that is so missing today in the media…She is a role model for all communicators and journalists and showed how to engage with people in a positive, direct, yet honest way.”

We as journalists, charged with the task of dissecting reality and presenting it as news to the people, can learn so much from Ifill’s dedication. May she rest in peace, knowing we will intend to carry on her legacy of reporting that prioritizes the truth over ratings.

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