Journalism Pioneer Gwen Ifill, Dies at 61

Gwen Ifill, one of the most prominent political journalists in the country, has died at age 61 after a long personal battle with cancer.

Ifill was a preacher’s daughter. She was born in New York City to a Panamanian immigrant father and a Barbadian mother. She started her journalism career as a print reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Boston Herald American. She went on to become a national political reporter for The Washington Post and the White House correspondent for The New York Times.

When she took the helm of Washington Week in Review in 1999, Ifill became the first African-American woman to host a major political TV talk show. Ifill covered seven presidential campaigns and moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. More recently, she moderated a presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Ifill was also the best-selling author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which examined African-American politicians and the changing landscape of politics and race.

As co-anchors of the “PBS NewsHour,” she and Judy Woodruff were the first all-female anchor team on network nightly news. As the moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” a PBS public affairs show that depended on her ability to corral rambunctious pundits, she took on a job typically reserved for hosts with names like George and John and Chuck.

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“You can’t spend a lot of time assuming the worst about why people do things. It almost always has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with them. It has to do with their biases, with their constraints, with their inability to imagine anything more and so rather than — and I tell this to young people all the time — rather than going around saying, ‘Aha, they didn’t give this to me because I was black or I was a woman,’ you stop and think — they didn’t give it to me because they couldn’t imagine me in this role and it’s my job then — it’s a tougher job than my white counterparts have, but it’s just what it is — my job is to force them to see me in a different role and then you act on that.”

Since she died, at 61, social media has been full of tributes to her courage, intelligence and optimism. One, in particular, stopped me when it floated past on Facebook.

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