Opinion: Why I’m thankful for what Gwen Ifill taught me, and America, in times of discord

Gwen Ifill with then-Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden, at the end of the 2008 vice presidential debate.
(Don Emmert / Associated Press)

The church where Frederick Douglass prayed over a century ago stirred last weekend with family, friends and admirers of Gwen Ifill.

Thousands, including First Lady Michelle Obama, poured into Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington on Saturday to celebrate the life of a great journalist, searching for the kind of closure that can only be found through shared laughter, tears and memory.

Ifill left a lasting and unquestionable impact on those she knew personally, and those who knew her from afar. I worked at “PBS NewsHour” for three years before joining the Los Angeles Times. I watched her make history with Judy Woodruff, and like so many, learned from her on a daily basis.


When she died on Nov. 14, she left behind an impenetrable void felt deeply by the loss of her unrivaled ability to make sense of the senseless.

She did it after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo.

“I found that nearly everyone feels they are ‘the rest of America,’” she wrote. “The ones who get blamed when things go wrong. But there is no hope of bridging that divide unless we come out of our corners without insisting on guilt and blame.”

And again after the Charleston, S.C., church massacre.

“The key word we should always keep in mind as we turn inward and search for meaning — political or religious — is one that recurred throughout the week — ‘process.’”

And again, and again, and again.

Now, as the nation continues to look inward at its division, we could use her guidance more than ever. In the absence of her perspective, we’ll have to settle for retrospect.

“We can’t expect the world to get better itself. We have to create something we can leave the next generation.” — Ifill, after being named Washingtonian magazine’s 2015 Washingtonian of the year

Ifill didn’t accept mediocrity, and she didn’t have to muddy reason with spectacle. When it often felt like the world was on fire, she knew that facts prevailed. And she didn’t refrain from pressing anyone — not the president, not political candidates, not local leaders — for them.

“Diversity is essential to the success of the news industry. We have stories to tell, but many in our audience stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.” — Ifill, to journalism students in 2013

She stepped beyond the confines of echo chambers and thought bubbles to tell stories that would otherwise go untold, and to find voices that most needed to be heard.

And she listened. If you’ve ever watched “PBS NewsHour,” a broadcast dedicated to thoughtfully shedding light on stories that matter, you know Ifill’s mission was tried and true.

“Rather than going around saying, ‘Aha, they didn’t give this to me because I was black or I was a woman,’ you stop and think — they didn’t give it to me because they couldn’t imagine me in this role. And it’s my job then — it’s a tougher job than my white counterparts have, but it’s just what it is — my job is to force them to see me in a different role and then you act on that.” – Ifill, in a 2009 interview with Julian Bond

She taught us that we must question always, and seek truth constantly. To dispose of our stereotypes and preconceptions, while listening to our instincts without allowing them to pervade our judgment.

Ifill’s historic success did not come overnight. It might have never come had she given in to someone’s attempts to quell her dreams at the start of her career.

So, perhaps most importantly, she taught us that it is only when we give up on our convictions that we truly fail.

At the end of Ifill’s service, her brother Bert shared with the church his sister’s final words to him in the days before she passed:

“I have no doubts.”

Twitter: @cshalby

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