Ifill, Gwen 1955–
Gwen Ifill 1955–
In 1999, Gwen Ifill became the first African-American woman in history to host a prominent political talk show on national television. A veteran news reporter who had served as the New York Times’s White House correspondent, Ifill left an NBC job to become the moderator of PBS’s Washington Week in Review. She stresses that, despite being a black woman in an industry that was until recent years dominated by white men. “There are just as many times when it worked against me as when it worked for me,” she told Paige Albiniak in an interview for Broadcasting & Cable. “I can’t look at my career and say I’ve been held back.”
Ifill was born in 1955 in New York City to O. Urcille Ifill, who had emigrated from Panama and married Ifill’s mother, who was from Barbados. She was the fifth of their six children, and the family lived in several different cities throughout New England and the Eastern Seaboard because of her father’s career as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Her high school years were spent in Buffalo, New York, where the family lived in federally subsidized housing. “We were very conscious of the fact that we didn’t have any money,” Ifill said in an interview with Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. “I make more money in a week than my father made in a year.” Nevertheless, it was a strict household. “My dad was the preacher, but my mom was the preacher’s wife,” she told People correspondent Lisa Newman. “And we were the preacher’s kids. All the time.”
Ifill’s interest in journalism is rooted in her parents’ insistence that their children gather nightly in front of the television to watch the national news. At Simmons College in Boston, she majored in communications, and interned at a local newspaper during her senior year. At the time, the city was mired in a protracted legal battle over school desegregation, and the interracial relations in the city were tense in 1976. While at the Boston Herald-American, a colleague left a racist note behind for Ifill one day—but her bosses were so mortified that they offered her a job upon graduation in 1977. Ifill then spent the next three years at the Herald-American, and in 1980 took a job covering city hall for the Baltimore Evening Sun. Her first television appeeirance came during this time, when she was invited to appear on a weekly analytical news show called Maryland Newswrap.
Ifill moved to the nation’s capital when she was hired by the Washington Post in 1984.
Born September 29, 1955, in New York, NY; daughter of O. Urei lie (a minister) and Eleanor (a homemaker) Ifill. Education: Simmons College, BA, 1977, Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Boston Herald-American, reporter, 1977-80; Baltimore Evening Sun, reporter, 1981-84; Washington Post, political reporter, 1984-91; New York Times, Washington, DC bureau, began as Congressional correspondent, became White House correspondent, 1991-94; NBC News, Washington, DC bureau, chief Congressional and political correspondent, 1994-99; Washington Week in Review, panelist and occasional guest moderator, 1992-99, moderator and managing editor, 1999-, and senior political correspondent for The Newshour With Jim Lehrer.
Member: National Association of Black Journalists; Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Awards, chair; Harvard Institute of Politics, board member.
Awards: Five honorary degrees.
Addresses: Home —Washington, DC. Office—Washington Week in Review, WETA-TV, 2275 South Quincy St., Arlington, VA 22206.
top newspapers in the country and one that is especially renowned for its political coverage, the Post gave the young reporter invaluable experience. Ifill covered the suburban Maryland beat until 1988, when she was promoted to national news desk and sent to report from the Republican National Convention. “There’s nothing like working for a political paper through and through to really teach you the nuances and meaning of politics,” she told Albiniak in the interview with Broadcasting & Cable. “I give it credit for what I know.”
Wooed away from the Post in 1991 by the nation’s most eminent newspaper, the New York Times, Ifill remained based in Washington, though her first major assignment put her on the reporters’ bus trailing Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. After the 1992 election, Ifill was made a Congressional correspondent and promoted to the White House beat before she left the job in 1994. Her mother had become ill, and Ifill arranged for her to live in an assisted-care facility in the Washington area, but felt that her Times duties did not give her the adequate personal time she needed to deal with these circumstances.
After fielding offers from all three major news networks, Ifill chose NBC News and became the Congressional correspondent at its Washington bureau. She covered the Congressional budget gridlock in 1995, the Whitewater investigation, Clinton’s impeachment hearings, and other important news stories, and her reports appeared regularly on the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Today, and on the cable news network MSNBC. She realized that network political coverage differed greatly from print coverage at a major newspaper. “If a hurricane was a story of the day, maybe something important was happening on the Hill—maybe there was a campaign finance vote—but that will never get reported,” she pointed out in the interview with Kurtz. The three major American news sources, she noted, “are pretty bored by Washington.”
During her years in Washington, Ifill had become a regular on such news-analysis shows like Meet the Press, which aired on NBC, and Washington Week in Review. The latter was a respected public-television staple taped at a PBS affiliate in Arlington, Virginia. It offered viewers a roundtable discussion of that week’s major news stories from journalists and political pundits. Washington Week in Review gained a certain amount of notoriety not long after its 1967 launch, when then-President Richard M. Nixon objected to the vocal criticism of his policies that its panelists aired, and sought to remove all public-affairs programs from the PBS budget. Viewers were so irate that they deluged the White House with letters, and Washington Week remained.
In early 1999, producers considered making it a more aggressive show, in the fashion of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, which is known for the raucous give-and-take between pundits and host. Washington Week’s regular moderator at the time, Ken Bode, resigned in protest, and it was several months before the producers offered Ifill the slot, with a promise not to make changes that would alter its respectable demeanor. As a bonus, they offered her the post of senior political correspondent for The Newshour With Jim Lehrer, which also airs on most PBS affiliates. Not only was Ifill the first female to ever moderate the show—or any major news-analysis show on television, for that matter—she was also the first African-American as well.
Producers at Washington Week heralded IfiU’s debut in the fall of 1999 with an ad campaign that asserted, “TV’s Voice of Reason Has a New Face.” Her colleagues considered her perfect for the job. “Gwen is blunt, down-to-earth and dogged,” Washington Post media critic Kurtz told People. “She’s not a cookie-cutter journalist.” Tim Russert, her former boss at NBC News’s Washington bureau, concurred: “If you’re a good reporter, a terrific writer and a great personality, it’s a perfect combination for television, and she’s got all three,” said Russert. Ifill did agree that Washington Week needed a little bit of updating. According to ratings surveys, three-quarters of its million-plus viewing audience were over 50 years of age. She began taking the show out of the studio, visiting college campuses, and the panelists became more diverse as well. The show is carried by over 300 PBS stations around the United States and even overseas on the Armed Forces network.
Ifill, who is single, lives in northwest Washington in a home filled with African art. For recreation, she enjoys attending Washington Mystics games. She chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Awards, and is a board member of the Harvard Institute of Politics. Although Ifill sometimes misses the anonymity of being a newspaper reporter, she relishes the high profile and sense of responsibility her job brings. “I can’t stress how important it is that young people know that anything is possible for them, and that if it means that a little black girl sitting in her living room somewhere sees me on TV and thinks ‘maybe I could do that,’ then I feel like my day’s work is done,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. “I want to be that kind of example.”
Broadcasting & Cable, August 7, 2000, p. 56.
Christian Science Monitor, May 26, 2000, p. 13.
Essence, April, 2000, p. 80.
People, December 11, 2000, p. 93.
Washington Post, October 1, 1999, p. C1.
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