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Gwen Ifill dies at 61; host of ‘Washington Week’


Gwen Ifill, the award-winning journalist best known for hosting the television programs “Washington Week” and “PBS NewsHour,” died this week after a months-long battle with cancer. She was 61.

The network said Ifill was not part of election night coverage explaining she was “off the air this week” while she addresses health issues. WETA-TV President Sharon Rockefeller emailed her staff on Monday informing them that their colleague had died while in hospice care in Washington, D.C.  She noted that she had spent an hour that morning with Ifill who was reportedly “resting comfortably, surrounded by loving family and friends.”

Sara Just, executive producer of “PBS NewsHour,” said this week that Ifill was a standard bearer for courage, fairness and integrity.

“She was a mentor to so many across the industry and her professionalism was respected across the political spectrum,” Just said. “She was a journalist’s journalist and sent an example for all around her.”

Many messages of condolence poured in on Monday morning following the news, among them a tweet from DNC chair Donna Brazile: “With deep and profound sadness, my friend has gone to glory. We will miss her voice, her works and more.” Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager for President-elect Donald Trump, tweeted that the news of Ifill’s death was “shocking and incredibly sad.” Arianna Huffington stated, “Very sad news about Gwen Ifill. Her voice will be missed.” John Dickerson of CBS News responded, “Howlingly sad. Dear sweet Gwen is gone. RIP.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer commented, “Gwen Ifill was my good friend. I will miss her. May she rest in peace.” Ifill was scheduled this week to receive the John Chancelor Award from Columbia University.

Ifill covered Washington politics for several decades. She moderated the 2004 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, and again in 2008 between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. She reported on a wide array of issues during a career which saw her receive more than 20 honorary degrees. She covered foreign affairs, U.S. politics and interviewed numerous international and national newsmakers.

Each week on “Washington Week,” Ifill led a roundtable discussion in the nation’s capital that provided analysis of the week’s news. This summer, Ifill moderated a town hall meeting in Elkart, Ind. with President Barack Obama, exploring voter’s choices. In September 2015 she moderated “America After Charleston,” examining the issues propelled into public discourse after a White gunman shot and killed nine Black parishioners at the city’s Emanuel African American Episcopal Church a few months earlier. And in September 2014, Ifill moderated “America After Ferguson,” discussing the many issues facing communities of color in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo.

Prior to arriving at PBS in 1999, Ifill was chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News. She also served as White House correspondent for the New Times and was a long-time political reporter with The Washington Post. She also reported for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Boston Herald American. Her 2009 book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” became a best-seller.

In 2002, Ifill came under fire when she criticized then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for comments he made during a birthday party for retiring South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott inferred that Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run on the Dixiecrat ticket would have made the nation “much better off.” Ifill, in turn, commented on her broadcast “What was [Lott] thinking?’ which caused the veteran Mississippi lawmaker to apologize repeatedly and renounce several policy positions he had taken over the years—most notably on affirmative action.

Her book also caused concern about her journalistic objectivity among conservative talk radio, blogs and cable news programs as it was released just days prior to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The GOP debate commission complained that the book’s contents should have been released before Ifill was selected to moderate the 2008 vice presidential debate because it had appeared in trade catalogs in July of that year. With analysts citing a conflict of interest, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, told Fox News Channel: “I think she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional.”

Ifill’s moderation of the debates gave her pop-culture recognition when the debates were parodied on “Saturday Night Live” with host Queen Latifah portraying Ifill.

Gwendolyn L. “Gwen” Ifill was born in Queens, NY on Sept. 29, 1955. She was the fifth child of African American Episcopal minister, Urcille Ifill Sr., born in Panama, and her mother, Eleanor Ifill, a native of the Barbados. She graduated in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Simmons College in Boston, Mass. where she interned for the Boston Herald-American. Ifill was hired shortly after graduation when it was revealed that a co-worker wrote her a note that read, “Nigger, go home.”

During her career, Ifill served on the boards of the News Literacy Project, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and she was a fellow with the American Academy of Sciences. In 2015 Ifill received the National Press Club’s highest honor, the Fourth Estate Award. Other honors included those bestowed by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, the National Association of Black Journalists, Ohio University, Boston’s Ford Hall Forum and she was included in Ebony Magazine’s list of 150 Most Influential African Americans.