In a tribute penned after the death of Gwen Ifill, Gene Policinski started: “At a time when some critics say American journalism is at its worst, we have lost a practitioner of journalism at its best…”
When she died in 2016, the PBS anchor was mourned by the establishment and the outsiders alike. For both groups, Ifill was the middle ground tailored towards excellence.
And in October of 2019, the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced that Ifill’s image will grace a “forever stamp” from 2020.
That is high praise for a black woman who had come from so far. Ifill’s story had been a life of history-making, the kind that seems surreal yet commonplace.
Born in Queens, New York to parents from Barbados, Ifill was the fifth of six children. Until her death, she remained close to the extended Ifill family, all of whom had come from Barbados over seven decades ago.
There is no doubt that the large family was kept together because of their fellowship with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Ifill’s father had been ordained as a minister after emigrating to the US; Ifill herself had been a devotee since 1989.
This bond with family and the values that she was taught by it, spurred Ifill on. What we saw in her journalism was Ifill bringing home to work.
She once quipped: “I’m a preacher’s kid, and we were always told: Act right all the time because someone’s always watching.”
She was passionate but objective and she did not confuse fairness with neutrality. Additionally, Ifill championed an approach that centered listening to opposing views regarding complexities but not for show.
She maintained her views yet allowing for the possibility that others might have something else to say. This quality of Ifill’s was tested in 2008 when a number of conservatives challenged her ability to be fair as a moderator of the vice-presidential debate.
When she was chosen, the issue of her then-incoming book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, was cited as a point of conflict of interest despite her track record. The book was to be released on inauguration day in 2009.
On the day before the debate, she said: “I’ve got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I’m not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation. The proof is in the pudding. They can watch the debate tomorrow night and make their own decisions about whether or not I’ve done my job.”
And she did her job. Quite excellently. So much so that the Boston Globe gave her “high marks for equal treatment of the candidates”.
She had come out of a tension unscathed; a rather undeserved tensive drama. In public, Ifill never wondered if her skin colour had been basis for some of the accusations that had been thrown at her.
But just like many other black people in the US, racism had personally visited her before. When she interned for the Boston Herald-American, someone had left the note “n*gger go home” on her table.
Ifill recalled that the managers of the newspaper were appalled at the indecency when she reported the matter to them. She was then permanently hired.
Naturally, this story prompted questions of whether she had been hired out of sympathy. She did not think so and neither do her friends.
But the questions asked of her hiring also brings to the fore the story of many millions of America’s black people who are told they are given more than their fair share of support and sympathy.
Donald Trump once said he would have wanted to be born “a black” in the 1980s because black people have an actual advantage over whites. They have it easy, thought Trump.
If one ever thought Ifill was hired out of sympathy and not because she is that good, they have over three decades of notes on her journey to take.
Ifill was a reporter for The Washington Post and the New York Times before becoming the first American woman of African ancestry to host nationally televised political TV show in 1999.
In November 2016, she died of breast and endometrial cancer aged 61.