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Gwen Ifill, PBS journalist, dead at age 61

In this April 11, 2011, file photo, Gwen

In this April 11, 2011, file photo, Gwen Ifill attends the New York Women in Communications' 2011 Matrix Awards in New York. Credit: AP

Gwen Ifill, the trailblazing co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour” and former host of “Washington Week in Review,” has died after a long battle with cancer, according to Washington public station WETA, which announced her death Monday. Ifill was 61.

Steady, sober and cerebral, Ifill was paired on “NewsHour” with an anchor — Judy Woodruff — who had an almost identical style. They fronted a news program that has esteemed sobriety over flash going back to the days of founding anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. Ifill was also one of the few African-American anchors of a national nightly broadcast news program over the long history of network television news.

In a statement Monday, President Barack Obama called Ifill an “especially powerful role model for young women and girls who admired her integrity, tenacity and intellect, and for whom she blazed a trail as one-half of the first all-female anchor team on network news.”

“Gwen was a standard-bearer for courage, fairness and integrity in an industry going through seismic change,” said Sara Just, PBS “NewsHour” executive producer, in a statement Monday. “She was a journalist’s journalist and set an example for all around her.”

Before “NewsHour,” Ifill had been moderator of “Washington Week in Review” and earlier had been a panelist on “Meet the Press.” Her friend — also moderator of “MTP” — Tim Russert had recruited her to join NBC News as a congressional correspondent in 1994.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, she was the child of Caribbean immigrants.

After college — Simmons, in Boston — Ifill went into journalism, first as a food writer for a Boston paper, later joining The Washington Post, where she reported on presidential campaigns, including Jesse Jackson’s 1988 bid. She later joined The New York Times, covering Bill Clinton’s first term.

Ifill, who joined PBS in 1999, had also moderated vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008 — the latter embroiled in controversy even before it began. In 2008, she was nearing publication of her book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” just before the debate, which some GOP critics charged was possibly sympathetic to Obama, then the Democratic candidate. But to avoid any hint of favoritism, Ifill said she had farmed out the chapter on Obama to another writer. Then Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin also criticized her choice as moderator, a minor brushup that would lead to an “SNL” parody in which Queen Latifah played Ifill opposite Tina Fey’s Palin.

In an interview with Archive of American Television a few years ago, Ifill said the two questions she is most often asked when speaking to students is, “What’s it like to have Queen Latifah play you, and how do you keep your opinions to yourself?”

“I say that I want to keep my mind open to all possibilities. If I make up my mind in advance, I stop listening. My job as a reporter is to not know what I think. It’s somebody’s job to have an opinion, but it’s not the kind of journalism I do.”

Ifill never married. She is survived by two brothers, Roberto, an economics professor, and Earle, a minister; and a sister, Maria Ifill Philip, who is retired from the State Department.


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