Gwen Ifill re­called as ‘stan­dard-bearer for courage’

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE - Bal­ti­more Sun re­porters Sean Welsh, Yvonne Wenger and Jac­ques Kelly con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle. david.zu­rawik@balt­sun.com

and not see any­one who looked like me in any way. No women. No peo­ple of color,” Ms. Ifill once said in a CNN in­ter­view.

“I’m very keen about the fact that a lit­tle girl now, watch­ing the news, when they see me and Judy 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,” she added.

Ms. Ifill cov­ered gov­ern­ment in Mary­land and Bal­ti­more for The Evening Sun from 1981 to 1984, when she left for a po­si­tion at The Washington Post.

“I learned so much about jour­nal­ism at The Evening Sun,” she wrote in the Sun Mag­a­zine to mark The Sun’s 175th an­niver­sary in 2012.

“I learned how to stare down a bully — even if she hap­pened to be the mayor. I learned how to dic­tate a story from a pay phone on the fly. And ... I learned how to wake up from a dead sleep and file on dead­line.”

Her days at The Evening Sun were re­called fondly by col­leagues, those she cov­ered — and even a ri­val.

“You could tell she was go­ing places,” said Ernest Imhoff, who was an ed­i­tor at The Evening Sun. “The Evening Sun, as a pa­per, was very ea­ger to get her. ... She had a feel for the wide world. She told me you have to learn about peo­ple who are not like you, peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from you.”

City Coun­cil­woman Mary Pat Clarke de­scribed Ms. Ifill as “a model for us women all over Bal­ti­more City and even­tu­ally all over the na­tion. ... She came out of the Sun­pa­pers, and she was a won­der­ful reporter and writer. When she left, we were so proud.”

Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings was in the Gen­eral As­sem­bly when Ms. Ifill cov­ered it.

“She al­ways demon­strated thought­ful in­tel­li­gence, de­ter­mi­na­tion to un­cover the facts and an in­nate ta­lent for know­ing what truly in­ter­ested the pub­lic,” he said in a state­ment. “Ms. Ifill was a trail­blazer and a gift to our na­tion who will be sorely missed.”

Ms. Ifill was a “tough com­peti­tor” — but fun, too — re­called Sandy Banisky, who Gwen Ifill an­swers ques­tions from the au­di­ence at the Bal­ti­more Book Fes­ti­val in 2009, the year she pub­lished “The Break­through: Pol­i­tics and Race in the Age of Obama.” re­ported for the com­pet­ing morn­ing Sun and even­tu­ally be­came a deputy manag­ing ed­i­tor.

“She brought per­spec­tive and depth to a sim­ple gov­ern­ment meet­ing,” said Ms. Banisky, now Abell pro­fes­sor in Bal­ti­more jour­nal­ism at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park. “She was smart and warm and gen­er­ous. Even though she left Bal­ti­more years ago, she al­ways re­mained close to her friends here. She loved jour­nal­ism and she loved pol­i­tics.”

Ms. Ifill served on the col­lege’s board of visi­tors from 2001 to 2007.

“Gwen Ifill gave gen­er­ously of her time to Mer­rill Col­lege and was an in­cred­i­ble role model for our stu­dents — par­tic­u­larly our women broad­cast­ers,” Dean Lucy Dal­glish said in a state­ment.

Ms. Ifill’s broad­cast ca­reer be­gan while at The Evening Sun when she ap­peared on “Mary­land Newswrap,” a pro­duc­tion of Mary­land Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion.

In 1983, she rep­re­sented The Evening Sun as one of the jour­nal­ists ques­tion­ing four Demo­cratic can­di­dates for mayor in a debate that aired on Bal­ti­more tele­vi­sion.

Ms. Ifill came to The Evening Sun from the Bos­ton Her­ald-Amer­i­can, where she had worked from 1977 to 1980 fol­low­ing her grad­u­a­tion from Sim­mons Col­lege.

She was born in New York City in 1955, the fifth of six chil­dren. Her fa­ther, who em­i­grated from Panama, was a min­is­ter in the African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church. Her mother had em­i­grated from Bar­ba­dos.

While the fam­ily lived in sev­eral lo­ca­tions on the East Coast be­cause of her fa­ther’s church as­sign­ments, Ms. Ifill said she spent her high school years in Buf­falo, N.Y., where her fam­ily lived in fed­er­ally sub­si­dized hous­ing.

“We were very con­scious of the fact that we didn’t have any money,” Ms. Ifill said in a 2008 Washington Post in­ter­view. “I make more money in a week than my dad made in a year.”

She said her in­ter­est in jour­nal­ism was sparked at an early age by her par­ents in­sist­ing the fam­ily gather in front of the tele­vi­sion set each evening to watch the nightly news.

Ms. Ifill also seems to have learned from her fam­ily the val­ues that helped give her a high de­gree of on-air moral au­thor­ity dur­ing her years at PBS.

“My dad was the preacher, but my mom was the preacher’s wife,” she told Peo­ple mag­a­zine. “And we were the preacher’s kids — all the time.”

Ms. Ifill worked as a White House cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times and chief con­gres­sional cor­re­spon­dent for NBC News be­fore join­ing PBS.

Dur­ing her ten­ure at the fore­front of pub­lic tele­vi­sion, Ms. Ifill mod­er­ated de­bates be­tween vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in 2004 and 2008.

The New York Times re­ported that Ms. Ifill was “livid” at be­ing passed over as a mod­er­a­tor for the 2012 pres­i­den­tial de­bates.

“I was in­deed dis­ap­pointed,” the news­pa­per quoted her as say­ing in an ar­ti­cle ques­tion­ing the di­ver­sity of the slate of mod­er­a­tors cho­sen.

Ms. Ifill co-mod­er­ated a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial debate dur­ing this pri­mary sea­son.

In 2009, she pub­lished “The Break­through: Pol­i­tics and Race in the Age of Obama.”

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama paid trib­ute to her dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Mon­day, say­ing, “I al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated [her] re­port­ing, even when I was at the re­ceiv­ing end of one of her tough in­ter­views.”

Speak­ing for him­self and first lady Michelle Obama, the pres­i­dent said, “She was a friend of ours. She 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.”

Sarah Glover, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Black Jour­nal­ists, called Ms. Ifill “a trans­for­ma­tive voice.”

“Her pro­fes­sion­al­ism and poise, cou­pled with an in­nate dogged­ness to re­port the story, re­ver­ber­ated through­out the in­dus­try,” Ms. Glover said. “Gwen cov­ered pol­i­tics and the pres­i­den­tial race with class, wis­dom and in­sight, sep­a­rat­ing her from the pack.”

Sara Just, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of “NewsHour,” de­scribed Ms. Ifill as a “stan­dard­bearer for courage, fair­ness and integrity in an in­dus­try go­ing through seis­mic change.”

“She was a jour­nal­ist’s jour­nal­ist and set an ex­am­ple for all around her,” said Ms. Just. “So many peo­ple in the au­di­ence felt that they knew and adored her. She had a tremen­dous com­bi­na­tion of warmth and au­thor­ity.”

Ms. Ifill, who was sin­gle, is sur­vived by two broth­ers and a sis­ter.

AL­GE­RINA PERNA/BAL­TI­MORE SUN FILE

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