It’s another busy day in the life of Gwen Ifill.
Back-to-back meetings about topics that may be covered on one of her television news programs. Reading. Reading. Reading. She reads some five news aggregation sites on the Internet and “dips” into as many newspapers each day. She’s making and receiving phone calls about news developments around the nation and world. She’s tweeting and blogging and giving interviews on the telephone to the local all-news radio station.
It’s all part of the routine for Ifill, a reporter-anchor Monday through Wednesday for “The News Hour,” the daily in-depth news reporting program on PBS, and managing editor and moderator of “Washington Week,” the widely-respected and watched weekend news and analysis program, also on PBS.
With a resume that boasts experience as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC News, the New York City-born Simmons College graduate has emerged in recent years as one of the most respected journalists in the nation. She’s done it with class and a trademark style that is a far cry from the direction in which more and more news and entertainment programs have gone to draw viewers.
In what one colleague characterized as a throwback to journalism that preceded much of what is touted today as journalism, Ifill effectively holds court with colleagues who don’t go for the drama or shock treatment of their viewers. No yelling, shouting or combative dialogue on these shows. Just a civil discussion of the issues and the people involved.
“I’ve landed at the perfect place where there is no reward for yelling,” says Ifill, who got her start in journalism as a rookie reporter at the Boston American Herald as the city was immersed in racial strife over efforts to desegregate its public schools. “It wasn’t the way I was raised,” she says, proudly, reflecting on the values instilled in her as a child by her parents, immigrants from Barbados and Panama, and reinforced by her teachers and peers at Simmons.
For a television news icon who “never dreamed I’d do anything but newspapers” and who feels the views of shoppers at a Piggly Wiggly grocery in say, Ohio, might be as enlightening, if not more, than a button-lipped White House staffer, colleagues say Ifill has mastered the art of what is often characterized as “above ’em, but of ’em.” She manages to discuss and challenge the powerful while still being able to interact with everyday people as if she’s the neighbor next door facing the daily grind of adult responsibilities.
“Gwen is the consummate professional,” said Charles Green, executive editor of the National Journal, the non-partisan political publication in the nation’s capital that partners with PBS in sponsoring “Washington Week.” “She’s serious about her work while having a sense of humor about her work and life,” said Green, a veteran Washington political reporter who has seen talents come and go since launching his journalism career three decades ago. “I’m sure she could have gone somewhere else and made an even bigger name for herself,” Green adds. “But she’s an in-depth, non-partisan, no-frills part of journalism that’s becoming increasingly rare. Gwen plays it down the middle. She’s really kind of a throwback in some ways.”
On this day, “Washington Week” is being taped for weekend airing. In the main studio of WETA, the Washington, D.C.-area PBS station, Ifill is clothed in a black and white print dress with a royal blue jacket. She is in front of a studio camera rehearsing her script touting upcoming news programs as the studio crew readies for broadcast. In the background one hears a soft medley of recorded music — Grover Washington Jr., Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers.
Soon, with all hands on board, the studio quiets. Cameras focus. Tape rolls, microphone opens. The next half hour features Ifill holding court with a panel of fellow distinguished journalists discussing a myriad of issues of the day from the presidential contest between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama to the economic crisis in Europe and the back and forth on Capitol Hill over holding the line on interest rates for college student loans. Once the program ends, Ifill moves on to a schedule of three more meetings, an interview and polishing a speech she has written for delivery at a college graduation the next day.
The one constant through this day is Ifill’s ability to remain calm and civil, regardless of what’s going on around her. In an era when the news media is rapidly evolving into a series of lopsided, highly opinionated, combative shouting matches of entertainment with news blended in, Ifill’s style and that of her programs stays loyal to the tenets of respect, civil discourse and efforts at balanced reporting and analysis. It’s classic Gwen Ifill, a person who prides herself on keeping her feet on the ground.
For sure, her parents and family played a major role in shaping Ifill’s career into what it is today. So did her college. They prepared her for the world she would confront as an adult. They taught her civility, respect, how to effectively make her points and how to speak up for herself. In the process, her self-confidence grew as did her realization that life’s pages turn, win or lose.
Dorothy Gilliam, the first Black woman hired as a reporter by the Washington Post for a career that spanned 33 years, says that history played a vital role in what would become of Ifill’s career as well. She recalls starting at the Post in 1961 when opportunities for all women in daily journalism were limited. The modern day civil rights movement hadn’t hit full steam and the modern day women’s rights movement had not even started. In Washington, D.C., women journalists could only attend National Press Club luncheon events if they sat in the press club’s ballroom balcony. There were restaurants, especially those patronized by the wealthy and politically powerful, that did not willingly serve Blacks or did not serve them at all. Taxi cabs could refuse to take a Black passenger without fear of official reprisal. The thought of a Black person — woman or man — working as a regular national political reporter for a national print, radio or television operation was never heard of.
By the time Ifill was out of college, the world of opportunities for Black people had changed dramatically, and Ifill was ready to take it on.
“By contrast those women who came in the early 1980s got to speak,” recalls Gilliam, whose career at The Washington Post spanned 33 years before her retirement. “I was so happy that generation felt they could come in and talk about what was going on. Gwen was one of those women who came in confident about herself, who she is.”
Gilliam, director of the Prime Movers Media Program in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said Ifill had a “really unique” place at the Post, “but knew she could do more and do better.” She did.
Ifill, who graduated from Simmons in 1977, credits growing up in the 1960s and 1970s with feeding her curiosity. “The world was exploding around me,” she recalled, noting that she, like other current journalists who were children in those decades, regularly read the Weekly Reader in her formative school years. “I was always curious about the world around me.” Ifill said her mother’s move from Barbados and her father’s move from Panama to another country played no small part in prompting her to learn more about the United States and the regions from which other people came.
After her run at the Boston paper, where the late Luix Overbea, a longtime Christian Science Monitor reporter, became her mentor, Ifill’s first break into the big leagues came in 1981 when she was hired by The Baltimore Sun. Three years later, the up-and-coming talent was on the staff of the Washington Post. From there, she was recruited by The New York Times (where she was a White House Correspondent) NBC News (where she served as congressional correspondent), and finally PBS where she became a correspondent for “The News Hour” and moderator of “Washington Week.”
Being a nationally-recognized and respected television news journalist was not the plan, says Ifill, who confesses, “I never dreamed I’d do anything but newspapers. … It was just never an option for me,” she said. “When I got into television, I did it to do the work, not to be on TV,” she said, stressing she takes the opportunity seriously every day.
Reflecting on her career, Ifill said her personal lowest points were earlier in her career, “probably when I thought I knew best and lost the battle. I’ve had battles at every place, but I’ve survived them. You can always survive them,” she said confidently, noting that assessment applies to personal and professional life. “What you think you want is not always what you need to have,” she said.
Ifill, who has moderated two vice presidential debates (2004 and 2008) during her career and written a 2008 book about the successful bid by then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to become president of the United States, said moderating those debates probably ranks as “the hardest” job she’s even done, although she ranks as “worst” her college job in the school library filing the Dewey decimal system.
Being the only journalist to ask questions of the vice presidential rivals required “the perfect balance” of questions about domestic and foreign issues, she recalled, and asking questions her other colleagues “never would.” She was referring to issues that might be of interest to rank-and-file citizens like those who shop the Piggly Wiggly groceries of the country.
Ifill’s service as debate moderator in 2008, despite wearing a cast showing her recovery from a leg injury, drew widespread praise from most corners, although supporters of Republican candidate Sarah Palin complained Ifill was biased against the former Alaska governor in her questioning and pursuit of answers. Ifill, not one to fire back when people speak ill of her, took the high ground in this case as she did years ago when syndicated radio host Don Imus offered a demeaning comment about her during her reporting days at the New York Times.
“She’s ladylike even if she has to crunch you with her spiked heels,” noted journalist and journalism historian Wayne Dawkins, an assistant professor at Hampton University. “It’s so clear, she’s well prepared,” said Dawkins.
Ifill said she would moderate again this fall, if asked.
Ifill also offered advice to graduating seniors at several institutions where she gave commencement speeches this spring. While not seeking to encroach on the territory of other advisers, Ifill did offer some literally feet-on-the-ground, non-journalist advice to students at one college.
“I have a fairly simple piece of advice for you today,” Ifill said in her prepared remarks. “It’s this: look up. We are looking down these days as we walk, as we talk, as we text. … It’s so much simpler to look down. Your feet are down there. Our screens are down there. But, our fears are down there too. Look up, and away from the fear and you will see destinations and opportunities. Look up and you will see the chance to speak and act on behalf of the discouraged and the diminished. Look up and you will see the expectations you set for yourself can only be exceeded by the expectations we have of you. Look up.”
When not holding court with colleagues on the issues of the day and week and not offering advice to students on the brink of the real world, Ifill said she does make time for a life outside politics. Unlike many Washington-based political reporters, Ifill is not a regular on the so-called “chicken dinner circuit” of ‘must attend’ luncheons and dinners and is not a social events gadfly. “You gotta’ turn it off,” she said, noting she is “very clear about what is work and what is play.”
The single godmother of two said she makes free time and spends it engaged in the routine of many households — reading a book, cooking a meal, going to a movie and dining out with friends. A regular church-goer (she is the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church minister) people who know her say her smile is genuine, illuminates a real compassion for others and a contagious sense of humor. Ifill said she also tries to make time for “a couple” of volunteer groups each year, making sure she doesn’t overcommit.
“She’s hit all the bases, from traditional newspapers, easily transitioning into network journalism,” said Dawkins, who has chronicled much of the involvement of Blacks in journalism in the post-segregation era. “She did everything by the book,” he said, adding, “She’s been a good learner and she has sought out mentors,” all along the way. “She’s been at the top of her game since the beginning.”