Death of Gwen Ifill

More from this show

PBS NewsHour co-host Gwen Ifill has died from cancer at the age of 61. Ifill, who had a long and storied career in journalism, will be remembered by Len Downie Jr., the Weil Family professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Downie was Ifill’s editor at the Washington Post and her longtime friend.

TED SIMONS: WELCOME TO "ARIZONA HORIZON," I'M TED SIMONS. PBS NEWSHOUR CO HOST GWEN IFILL DIED TODAY AT THE AGE OF 61. IFILL HAD BEEN DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER LESS THAN A YEAR AGO. SHE DIES TODAY IN HOSPICE CARE IN WASHINGTON. SHE HAD A STOREYED CAREER IN JOURNALISM WORKING AT THE WASHINGTON POST, THE NEW YORK TIMES AND NBC NEWS, BEFORE BECOMING MODERATOR OF THE "WEEKEND REVIEW" AND CO-HOST OF THE NEW HOURS 2013. TODAY AT A WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING, PRESIDENT OBAMA OFFERED SYMPATHIES.
-PACKAGE-
MICHELLE AND I WANT TO OFFER OUR DEEPEST CONDOLENCES TO GWEN IFILL'S PASSING. SHE WAS A FRIEND OF OURS, AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNALIST, ASKED THE TOUGH QUESTIONS, HOLDING PEOPLE IN POWER ACCOUNTABLE AND DEMANDING A FREE PRESS THAT MAKES OUR DEMOCRACY WORK. I APPRECIATED HER REPORTING EVEN AT THE END OF ONE OF HER TOUGH INTERVIEWS, FROM THE CONVENTION FLOOR OR SPORTS FIELD, SHE INFORMED TODAY'S CITIZENS AND INSPIRED TOMORROW'S JOURNALISTS. SHE WAS A POWERFUL ROLE MODEL FOR YOUNG GIRLS WHO ADMIRED HER INTELLECT. SHE BLAZED A TRAIL AS HALF OF THE FIRST ALL FEMALE ANCHOR TEAM ON NETWORK NEWS. GWEN DID HER COUNTRY A GREAT SERVICE. MICHELLE AND I JOIN HER FAMILY AND COLLEAGUES AND EVERYONE THAT LOVED HER BY REMEMBERING HER FONDLY TODAY.
-END-
TED SIMONS: FOR MORE ON THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF GWEN IFILL WE ARE JOINED BY LEN DOWNIE, JR WHO WAS GWEN IFILL'S EDITOR AT THE WASHINGTON POST AND LONG TIME FRIEND.

LEN DOWNIE: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR BEING HERE.

TED SIMONS: WHO WAS GWEN IFILL?

LEN DOWNIE: SHE WAS A TENACIOUS -- SHE LOVED JOURNALISM. SHE WAS A TENACIOUS REPORTER, QUICK STUDY, GOOD ANALYST. SHE DEVELOPED SOURCES REALLY WELL. SHE WOULDN'T LET EDITORS PUSH HER AROUND IF SHE WAS RIGHT AND THEY WERE WRONG WHICH HAPPENS ON OCCASION. SHE GREW ALL THE TIME. SOMETIMES JOURNALISTS DON'T GROW FURTHER BUT SHE KEPT GROWING UNTIL SHE WAS A NIGHTLY NEWS CO-HOST.

TED SIMONS: AND BROKE GENDER AND RACIAL BARRIERS, TRUE?

LEN DOWNIE: TO A CERTAIN EXTENT SHE DID. SHE WASN'T THE FIRST BLACK CO-HOST OF THE NETWORK NEWS BROADCASTING. THAT WAS ABC NEWS EARLIER. SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN WITHOUT A DOUBT. SHE WOULDN'T WANT TO BE REMEMBERED FOR THAT. SHE WOULD WANT TO BE REMEMBERED FOR THE KIND OF JOURNALIST SHE WAS AND HOW SHE SOUGHT THE TRUTH. SHE WAS A TOUGH INTERVIEWER AND ALWAYS TRYING TO FIND OUT WHAT THE TRUTH WAS WHEN PEOPLE DIDN'T WANT TO TELL HER THE TRUTH OR THINGS WERE MURKY TO EVERYONE ELSE.

TED SIMONS: YOU APPEARED WITH HER AT THE MUSEUM FOR THE 100TH BIRTHDAY OF WALTER CON KITE. AT THE TIME SHE SPOKE ABOUT TRUST. LET'S LISTEN TO WHAT SHE HAD TO SAY.
-PACKAGE-
IMAGINE ME MEETING WALTER CRONKITE TO HAVE HIM ACKNOWLEDGE HE WATCHED ME ON THE NEWS EVERY NIGHT, WHICH SCARED THE HELL OUT OF ME BECAUSE YOU REALIZE THERE WAS A STANDARD YOU WERE TRYING TO MEET. SO MANY OF US ARE TRYING TO ACHIEVE THAT LEVEL OF TRUST, WHAT WE KNOW TO BE TRUE ABOUT OUR BUSINESS, TELEVISION AND NEWSPAPERS AND BLOGS AND ALL OF THE THINGS WE ARE, WE ARE NOT THERE ANYMORE. NO ONE LOOKS AT YOU AND SAYS I TRUST WHATEVER COMES OUT OF YOUR MOUTH. THE BEST OF US ARE STRIVING FOR THAT WITH WALTER CRONKITE'S FACE IN OUR HEADS. NOT THAT WE SAY IT YOU BELIEVE IT INSTANTLY BUT BECAUSE WE SAY IT, IT'S BACKED UP. IT'S REPORTED. IT'S NOT JUST MY OPINION. WE ARE ASKING QUESTIONS FOR A REASON. IT'S NOT JUST THE PERSONALITIES ASKING THE QUESTIONS, IT'S BECAUSE OF THE ANSWERS.
-END-
TED SIMONS: WHY WAS GWEN A TRUSTED FIGURE?

LEN DOWNIE: SHE WAS A REPORTER. SHE REMAINED A REPORTER. THAT'S WHAT MADE WALTER CRONKITE SO SPECIAL. HE WAS A REPORTER, SO WAS GWEN. SHE WAS ALWAYS TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT WAS GOING ON AND SHE NEVER BETRAYED OPINIONS OF HER OWN WHILE AT THE SAME TIME BEING SKEPTICAL OF THINGS TOLD TO HER THAT SHE DIDN'T THINK WERE TRUE.

TED SIMONS: DID SHE TALK ABOUT THE SHIFT FROM PRINT TO TV?

LEN DOWNIE: NO, IT'S INTERESTING BECAUSE THIS WAS NATURALLY GWEN. I DON'T THINK SHE HAD TO MAKE A BIG SHIFT. THIS PERSONALITY WAS THE PERSONALITY SHE ALREADY HAD. IT WAS A NATURAL TRANSITION FOR HER. SHE LOVED PBS AND THE NEWSHOUR. I THINK PART OF THE REASON WAS, IT WAS REAL JOURNALISM, NOT ENTERTAINMENT, IF YOU WILL. SHE MAY NOT HAVE BEEN A GOOD ENTERTAINER, BUT SHE WAS HERSELF, A NEWS PERSON.

TED SIMONS: SIX WEEKS AGO AT THE EVENT HONORING WALTER CRONKITE, SHE DID SPEAK ABOUT HER CAREER AT PBS. LETS TAKE A LOOK.

-PACKAGE-
I THINK WHAT PUBLIC BROADCASTING HAS IS TIME. WE HAVE AN HOUR OF UNINTERRUPTED TIME EVERY NIGHT. WE HAVE FRONT LINE EVERY WEEK. WE HAVE THE VOICE, TELLING US THINGS I THOUGHT I KNEW ABOUT THESE CANDIDATES, BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW.

REALLY, HILLARY WAS ON THE WATER GATE COMMITTEE? YOU DIDN'T KNOW THAT? YOU DO A REAL VALUE AND SERVICE IN REMINDING PEOPLE TO TAKE THE TIME OF TELLING THE STORY WELL. I DON'T DESPAIR THAT THERE WERE PLACES TO GET INFORMATION. THERE HAVE TO BE PLACES TO GO FOR THOSE THAT DON'T WANT TO KNOW THAT MUCH. FOR THOSE THAT DO, THAT'S WHAT'S IMPORTANT. FOR US TO DO THAT, WE NEED MONEY, PEOPLE LIKE YOU, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, I'LL TAKE YOUR CHECKS ON THE WAY OUT THE DOOR, THE TOTE BAGS ARE IN THE MAIL.

SHE'S NOT GOING TO STOP TALKING UNTIL YOU START SENDING IN YOUR CHECKS.

HE'S KNOWN ME FOR A WHILE.

-END PACKAGE-

TED SIMONS: THERE'S THAT PERSONALITY TOO, WHICH YOU CAN BE A SOBER NEWS REPORTER BUT THE PERSONALITY SHOWS, DOESN'T IT?

LEN DOWNIE: SHE HAD A REALLY STRONG SENSE OF HUMOR SHE WAS FUN TO BE A COLLEAGUE OF AT THE WASHINGTON POST. WE HAD DISAGREEMENTS OF COURSE AS EDITOR AND REPORTER BUT HUMOR A BIG PART OF IT. THE FACT THAT SHE CARED SO DEEPLY ABOUT HER WORK. YOU ASKED WHY SHE WAS SO TRUSTED. YOU COULD SEE THE CARING COME THROUGH ON TELEVISION.

TED SIMONS: IS THAT WHAT YOUNG JOURNALISTS CAN LEARN FROM HER CRAFT?

LEN DOWNIE: I THINK THEY CAN LEARN SEVERL THINGS FROM HER. REPORTING COMES FIRST, FACTS COME FIRST, IN THIS AGE EVERYONE WANTS TO HAVE AN OPINION, TO HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR ABOUT YOURSELF AND SEEING OUTSIDE YOURSELF AND NOT BECOMING OVERWHELMED BY THE POSITION YOU ARE IN AND BY GOING AFTER THE TRUTH.

TED SIMONS: SO WHAT IS GWEN'S LEGACY?

LEN DOWNIE: SHE WROTE A BOOK IN WHICH SHE DISCUSSED BEING AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN PIONEER. EVEN THOUGH THAT IS NOT WHAT SHE WANTED TO FOCUS ON, SHE WANTED TO FOCUS HER ATTENTION ON HER WORK. I THINK THE CALMNESS AND SERIOUSNESS OF THE WAY IN WHICH SHE CONDUCTED THE NEWS ON PBS IS PART OF THE LEGACY WHILE SO MUCH SEEMS TO BE STRIVING AFTER ENTERTAINMENT ON OTHER CHANNELS.

TED SIMONS: THANK YOU FOR JOINING US TO TALK ABOUT YOUR FRIEND. WE APPRECIATE IT.

Len Downie Jr., professor, Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024
airs April 18

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates as part of ‘AZ Votes 2024’

Earth Day Challenge graphic with the Arizona PBS logo and an illustration of the earth

Help us meet the Earth Day Challenge!

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 12

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

The Capital building with text reading: Circle on Circle: Robert Lowell's D.C.
May 2

An evening with ‘Poetry in America’

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: