In Memory of Gwen Ifill


There is so much bad journalism running helter-skelter through the land that when the world loses one of its premier journalists, it is a moment to pause and to grieve.
Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of the “PBS Newshour” and host of “Washington Week”, died November 14th from cancer. She was 61-years-old. Many journalists who were her colleagues and friends have spoken and written about her as a person. They have commented on her excellence as a journalist, about her no nonsense approach to the work of giving the public solid information with which to understand the world around us. They have shared their memories of her faith, of her smile, laughter, singing, and hospitality.
I did not know Gwen Ifill personally, so I can only write about her from the perspective of someone who invited her into my home nearly every week-day evening for seventeen years. I quit network news decades ago, deciding that bad journalism is a waste of my precious time. I watched the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” in the late 1970s and continued watching when it became “The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” in 1983. My children were reared on this program because I wanted them to be aware of the world around them beyond our street and city.
When Gwen Ifill joined the program, I welcomed the presence of a more than competent journalist. Over the years, I have found little to complain about in her work. She was always respectful and friendly with the guests on the program. She moderated difficult discussion with aplomb, with an even-handed fairness that, in the end, left me with a better understanding of both sides of an issue.
I especially appreciated the respect she gave to ordinary people when conducting focus group discussions or town hall meetings. She never made anyone feel small, uninformed or illogical when she could have. For example, in a town hall meeting in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, one young man complained that he had voted for President Obama twice, but that he was still facing police harassment in his community. She did not ask the young man whether or not he had voted in local elections. She resisted the urge to tell him that President Obama does not appoint the police officials in his town.
It was clear from the questions she asked that Gwen Ifill did her homework. In a media environment of spin, group-think, and fragmented information, where far too many people who call themselves journalists exhibit a 27-second short term memory, and no memory at all beyond the last news cycle, where too many journalists clearly do not read history, it is little wonder that the late Gore Vidal correctly observed that the USA is the United States of Amnesia. Gwen Ifill did not forget, and she did not forget that she was an African-American woman in America.

While her journalism was not confined to African-American issues, she did not walk away from a responsibility to ask questions framed by a horizon of interpretation based on her life as an African-American woman. This was evident when she moderated the vice-presidential debate in 2004 and asked Vice-President Cheney and Senator Edwards about the AIDS epidemic among African-American women. The “PBS Newshour” is running a series of reports on race matters, a series that was close to her heart.
Like many African-Americans, Gwen Ifill suffered blatant racism from colleagues early in her career. Don Imus once called her the New York Times’ cleaning lady. During a discussion about Imus after he was fired from MSNBC in the wake of his disgusting comments about the Rutgers’ Women’s basketball team, she reproached both Tim Russert and David Brooks for their silence in the face of Imus’ previous demeaning remarks. I was very proud of her that day. It would have been easy for her to have been silent. These men were her friends, but she called them to account, as friends and equals ought to do.(
I never met Gwen Ifill in person. In the summer of 2015, I was going down an escalator in Washington D.C’s Union Station rushing to catch a train to New York City. She was opposite me on the up escalator. I recognized her, waved and smiled as if greeting an old friend. She smiled back and nodded as if she too was greeting a friend. I am certain this happened many many time in her travels. She made us feel that we were friends.
When a person such as Gwen Ifill dies, it is as if a member of one’s own family has died. Her loss is personal. I thank God she came our way, that Divine Love lent her to us for 61 years. Through my own grief and tears, I pray God’s peace and comfort for her family and friends who will miss her laughter and her song. I will miss her beauty, her truth-telling integrity, and her excellence as a journalist.
Thank you Gwen Ifill. Well-done God’s good and faithful servant.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

4 thoughts on “In Memory of Gwen Ifill

  1. Valerie,
    Thank you so much for this.
    I was reading BBC News when I saw the header with Gwen’s name. I immediately scrolled down and cried, “no, no, no!” and though I also did not know her personally there was, likewise, a sense of personal loss. It did not help that I’m much older than Gwen and had a kind of parent-like sense of pride in her accomplishments.
    She did us proud, so very, very proud.

  2. Thank you so much for your piece about Gwen Ifill. She too felt like a family friend and I have cried over her loss as if she had been. Everyone speaks about her smile, indeed. But a smile like hers was Pure Light.
    That is why we are in such mourning, we don’t know what to call it, but it was Light, the kind that speak for Spirit.

  3. My wife and I rarely missed Gwen Ifill’s Friday program. We liked her and the program. She was a relief from the usual political comment.

  4. Yes, shock and grief at the news of Gwen’s illness and untimely leaving. Ms Ifill was a refreshing study in awesomness in these days of shameless and vile behaviour against humanity. This is truly a loss to many who were refreshed by her steadfast voice of reason. G_d have mercy and bless her/our collective human family. Eternal light.

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