Broadcast journalist and PBS NewsHour co-host Gwen Ifill was scheduled tonight to receive the John Chancellor Award, a lifetime-achievement prize honoring her excellence and fearlessness in journalism over the years. Instead, journalists in all disciplines are mourning a legend who died Monday at 61 of endometrial cancer.
Highly respected by those inside and outside the industry, Ifill was known for her balanced coverage inspired by her courageousness and curiosity. What many admired about her most was the high bar she set with her reporting and her determination to be as fair as possible–to the point where many often had no clue what her personal feelings were. She faced criticism of bias in favor of the Obama campaign back in 2008, because she was writing a book featuring him. Yet Senator John McCain defended her in an interview with Fox News about the controversy and said, “I think that she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional.”
Ifill was an obvious choice for the Chancellor award, particularly because of her commitment to give equal weight to all sides, says jury chair Lynn Sherr. “The general sense about Gwen was that she had been not only ‘in the infantry,’–she had certainly put in her time in the trenches–but that she absolutely lived up to our criterion of being willing to go against conventional attitudes.”
One work Sherr feels really highlights that attitude was Ifill’s story on the 50-year anniversary of the civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many other anniversary pieces simply touched on the importance of the march and the progress made. Ifill’s piece stood out because it instead took a critical tone, pointing out the continued struggles and hardships Selma residents face. “The city is worn, with crumbling houses, empty lots, shuttered storefronts,” Ifill said in her story, while showcasing rundown houses in the neighborhood.
Ifill is the first African American journalist to win the Chancellor, which is administered by Columbia Journalism School. Established in 1995, the award was created in honor of the late John Chancellor, who spent 41 years at NBC and was known for his in-depth and insightful reporting on topics like civil rights and politics. The final winner is chosen by a jury of journalists after a vetting all the nominations provided by the public. The past three winners were Alissa J Rubin, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times; Martin Smith, writer and producer for PBS’ Frontline and Rain Media; and Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News.
Ifill, who got her start as an intern for the Boston Herald-American and went on to reporting jobs at The New York Times and Washington Post before going into broadcast news, tackled race head on in both her stories and journalism career. An active member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Ifill was inducted into organization’s hall of fame in 2012. She was an inspiration to many, especially aspiring black female journalists who could see someone like them who reached successful heights in an industry that is often unkind to people of color. A number of black women journalists reflected on how Ifill inspired them in a piece by Amber Payne for NBCBLK.
She had many standout moments. In 1999, she was the first black woman to host a major national political show, Washington Week in Review. In 2004 and 2008, she was both the only African American and the only woman to moderate the vice presidential debates. She and co-anchor Judy Woodruff became the first female on-air team at NewsHour, a true breakthrough given the boys-club like environment of politics and broadcast news.
William Wheatley, another jury member and former executive vice president of NBC, met Ifill when she joined the network’s politics team in 1994. Her regard for understanding the political process and the people it served ultimately contributed to both her success in political reporting and transition from print to broadcast, Wheatley says.
“Everybody on the jury recognized the contribution that she has made over the years to tough but fair journalism,” he says. “She is a role model for anyone who cares about good fair journalism.”
Ifill’s career and approach to political reporting represented a reaffirmation of the values of traditional journalism, particularly, the importance of going out to report, talking to subjects, and doing your homework. The Chancellor jury especially wanted to recognize these basic ideals of journalism, given the whirlwind that was the 2016 election season, Coll says.
Steve Coll, Columbia Journalism School dean and a Chancellor juror, said what struck him most was Ifill’s ability to ask hard questions without becoming defensive. “She brought a depth and consistency to her reporting that shed deeper light on issues. She really had a gift to look behind the surface of news to add needed context.”
When the jury came to its decision back in August, some were aware of Ifill’s ongoing health issues. She took a period of time off from her broadcast gigs, but largely kept the state of her health private. The award dinner was cancelled due to Ifill’s health condition without explanation earlier this month, to be postponed until the spring. Ifill died just 10 days later.
The school is hoping to work with Ifill’s family and friends to put together a program to honor her in the spring.