PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill Dies At 61 Pioneering African-American journalist Gwen Ifill has died. Ifill was best-known as host of the programs Washington Week and PBS NewsHour. She also moderated two vice presidential debates and presidential primary debates this year. She was 61.
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PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill Dies At 61

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PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill Dies At 61

PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill Dies At 61

PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill Dies At 61

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Pioneering African-American journalist Gwen Ifill has died. Ifill was best-known as host of the programs Washington Week and PBS NewsHour. She also moderated two vice presidential debates and presidential primary debates this year. She was 61.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It hurts to have to share the sad news that Gwen Ifill has died. Gwen was one of our most respected colleagues in public media as well as a friend to many of us at NPR. She was best known as co-anchor of the "NewsHour" and "Washington Week" on PBS. President Obama praised her at his news conference this afternoon.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: She was an extraordinary journalist. She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession, asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work.

SIEGEL: As an African-American woman, Gwen Ifill was also a pioneer in broadcast news. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Fans of Gwen Ifill said she made political discussions feel like a dinner party.

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GWEN IFILL: We could talk the entire time about the Senate. As a matter of fact, I will for one more minute.

ULABY: The firsts on Ifill's resume included first African-American woman to host a political talk show on national TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WASHINGTON WEEK IN REVIEW")

IFILL: Tonight on "Washington Week In Review."

ULABY: ...And half of the first female co-anchor news team. That was on the same network, "PBS NewsHour." Gwen Ifill was born in New York City in 1955, the year after the Supreme Court made segregation in public schools illegal. Both of her parents were immigrants and her father was a minister. When she was in high school, the family lived in federally subsidized housing.

She remembered her childhood in a 2009 conversation with civil rights leader Julian Bond. It was recorded by the University of Virginia.

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IFILL: We grew up with the understanding that you had to fight for almost everything you got, that people were going to deny you if they could and that you shouldn't carry it as a chip on your shoulder but as a way of setting up what your standards ought to be to overcome.

ULABY: When Ifill was a senior in college, she interned at a newspaper in Boston. One morning, she came in to find a racist sign hung on her desk. The young reporter rose over the insult and the paper offered her a job as a food writer. She took it. Ifill went on to work as a news reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times. NBC hired her as a congressional correspondent in 1994.

She became known as a clear-eyed political analyst. That's partly why she was picked to moderate two vice presidential debates.

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IFILL: Every debate moderator tries to figure a way to get past the speeches.

ULABY: That's Ifill giving a speech this year at Colorado College. She saw moderating as a chance to show how much candidates actually knew, like when she asked Dick Cheney and John Edwards in 2004 to talk about AIDS in the United States.

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IFILL: Where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts...

ULABY: As Ifill remembered later in her speech, both candidates hedged.

IFILL: And I could have chased them around the table. But I kind of made a decision as a moderator that this - the viewers at home had learned what they needed to learn about this, which is that none of them knew or care.

PAULA KERGER: Election season was always a highlight for her.

ULABY: Paula Kerger is president and CEO of PBS.

KERGER: She always looked for opportunities to bring light and not heat to the conversation.

ULABY: That was true even when the radio personality Don Imus said of Gwen Ifill that a cleaning lady had been hired to cover the White House. Years later, Gwen Ifill went on "Meet The Press" and rebuked someone who said most people knew that kind of talk was just entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

IFILL: Yeah, unless they're the targets. And when you're the target, somehow it seems a lot more real.

ULABY: Gwen Ifill was 61 years old when she died. She was a private person. She'd been fighting cancer, but many of her friends thought she'd been doing OK. When she deteriorated, it happened over a matter of weeks. As recently as July, Gwen Ifill was talking from the convention floor to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED about the differences in discussions about race from the last presidential election to this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

IFILL: When Barack Obama ran, he ran in part by convincing white people he wasn't a threat. Now whenever we have a discussion about race in this campaign, it's always about threat. It's always about someone versus someone. It's always about arguments that are happening in the streets and not in the political world.

ULABY: Gwen Ifill could turn arguments into discussions. She listened and she made sure her audience was informed about the facts. She moderated all of us who watched her. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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