Gwen Ifill, who wrote for some of the country’s premier newspapers before transitioning to broadcast journalism and making her greatest mark as one of the most prominent African American TV anchors of her generation, died Nov. 14 at a hospice center in Washington. She was 61.“The PBS NewsHour,” the program she co-led with Judy Woodruff, announced the death and said the cause was cancer. Ms. Ifill also was anchor of PBS’s “Washington Week” roundtable public affairs show. Earlier this year, she moderated a Democratic primary debate, but her ill health led to several leaves of absence from her hosting duties.
The cause was cancer, said her friend, former National Public Radio Michele Norris.
A preacher’s daughter, Ms. Ifill (pronounced EYE-ful) grew up in a home where the church was paramount but familiarity with the news of the day was essentially a second religion. The Ifills gathered nightly to watch network newscasts, and the children were expected to be conversant in the major events of the era, from the assassinations of civil rights leaders to the war in Vietnam.
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Because of her father’s low pay, she liked to note that she was likely the only Washington journalist covering the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had also lived in federally subsidized housing. Later, as her career took her from The Washington Post and New York Times to NBC News and PBS, she reflected ruefully on her family’s struggle: “I make more money in a week than my father made in a year.”
She began her reporting career in the late 1970s, with stints in Boston and Baltimore, assertively carving a niche for herself as a political journalist at a time when black journalists and black female reporters, in particular, were rare in newsrooms and rarer still on the city hall beat. She recalled getting letters from readers brimming with racial slurs and, in return, receiving a grin-and-bear-it response from less-than-understanding editors.
From childhood, Ms. Ifill harbored a desire to appear on television, and her increasingly prominent reporting jobs generated a flurry of television appearances on public affairs shows the 1980s and 1990s..P.M.T