Veteran journalist Gwen Ifill dies at 61

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BY CHRIS BARTON
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

Gwen Ifill, the award-winning journalist and anchor of the public television news programs “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week” whose career included moderating the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, died of cancer Monday, according to a statement released by PBS. She was 61.

Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill

Citing health problems, Ifill had taken a two-month leave of absence from her duties at PBS in April while she was undergoing treatment, but she returned in May. In early November, she again went on leave from the network for health reasons.

“Gwen was one of America’s leading lights in journalism and a fundamental reason public media is considered a trusted window on the world by audiences across the nation,” Paula Kerger, president and chief executive of PBS, said in a statement. “Her contributions to thoughtful reporting and civic discourse simply cannot be overstated.”

Major honor
On Wednesday, Ifill had been scheduled to be presented with the John Chancellor Award by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, an honor that recognizes cumulative career accomplishments in the field.

Ifill was to be the first African-American to receive the award in its 21-year history.

“Gwen Ifill’s career embodies the best of our profession … her unflinching pursuit of the truth, healthy skepticism of those in power and her commitment to fairness,” said the dean of Columbia’s journalism school, Steve Coll, who was on the nine-person jury that decided the award.

In opening a news conference Monday afternoon, President Barack Obama said Ifill “was an extraordinary journalist. She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession — asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable, and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work.”

In her own words
Since 2013, Ifill teamed with Judy Woodruff as co-anchor and served as co-managing editor of “PBS NewsHour,” which was the first television news program to be led by two women journalists. The significance of the position was not lost on her.

“When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way,” she told The New York Times in 2013.

“I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy (Woodruff) sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”

Born in New York City as the fifth of six children of a Panamanian-born father who was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and a mother born in Barbados, Ifill’s family frequently moved around the northeast United States during her childhood.

She graduated from Simmons College in Boston in 1977 with a degree in communications, and her journalism career began in college with an internship at the Boston Herald (then the Herald-American).

Covered White House
Ifill eventually moved on to cover politics for The Baltimore Evening Sun followed by working at The Washington Post and The New York Times, where she was hired in 1991 to cover Congress and, eventually, the White House.

In 1994, after being what she described as “dared” by her friend and colleague Tim Russert to switch to TV, she joined NBC to cover Capitol Hill. Five years later, she moved to PBS as the host of “Washington Week,” becoming the first Black woman to host a major political talk show on TV.

In 2008, “Washington Week” earned a Peabody Award that praised “its reasoned, reliable contribution to the national discourse.” In 2009, Ifill released the best-selling book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”

She received more than 20 honorary degrees from universities and was presented with the Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club in 2015.

She also moderated numerous public forums in recent years, including a town hall with Obama in June 2016.

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