Gwen Ifill dead at 61

Gwen Ifill co-anchors one of the smartest news programs in America that probably isn’t as well watched as it should be, but for those who value a calm and intelligent discussion about the day’s issues, she was a national treasure.

She died today at 61.

Ifill, along with Judy Woodruff, were the first all-female anchor team in the history of network television when they debuted three years ago.

Two years ago she took her show to Ferguson, Mo., and held a town hall meeting about race relations.

By then, some people had grown weary of the post-Ferguson debate.

“We are still talking, because there is so much left unsaid,” she wrote.

Probably the single thing that cheered me most occurred after the cameras stopped rolling. As I was preparing to leave, I encountered three of our audience members — Ross Kaminsky, Rashad Robinson of Color of Change and Philip Agnew of Dream Defenders – walking out together. They were on their way to grab a drink and talk some more.

“Rashad, Phil and I agree politically on perhaps five percent of issues,” Kaminsky wrote later. “But speaking to them over drinks and burgers and fried ravioli was enlightening and, yes, fun.”

More proof that we can talk — and we can listen — if we only give each other a chance.

“I always knew I wanted to be a journalist, and my first love was newspapers,” Ifill said. She worked at the Boston Herald, the Baltimore Sun, and the New York Times in her pre-TV days. “But public broadcasting provides the best of both worlds-combining the depth of newspapering with the immediate impact of broadcast television.”

She hadn’t tweeted since the end of October and the statement from Sara Just, the executive producer of NewsHour gave no clue about Ifill’s earlier health. She reportedly had cancer and had taken a leave of absence from her broadcast duties in May, never making her illness public.

“Gwen was a standard bearer for courage, fairness and integrity in an industry going through seismic change. She was a mentor to so many across the industry and her professionalism was respected across the political spectrum. She was a journalist’s journalist and set an example for all around her.

So many people in the audience felt that they knew and adored her. She had a tremendous combination of warmth and authority. She was stopped on the street routinely by people who just wanted to give her a hug and considered her a friend after years of seeing her on tv.

We will forever miss her terribly.”

A decade or so ago, Don Imus — then a powerful DJ in the days before crude and journalism often went together — remarked about Ifill, “Isn’t The Times wonderful. It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

She held her fire, more or less, then went on a Sunday morning boy’s club — Meet the Press — and called out her media colleagues.

“There has been radio silence from a lot of people who have done this program who could have spoken up and said, I find this offensive or I didn’t know,” Ifill said.

“These people didn’t speak up,” turning to the late Tim Russert and NY Times columnist David Brooks, who were both stupid enough to try to defend Imus’ additional insults about black members of the Rutgers women’s baseketball team as being just a joke.

A third panelist said it’s hard to draw the line of what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

“Except that it’s really not,” she said.

“When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color,” she told the New York Times in 2013. “I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy [Woodruff] sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”

“I just keep my head down and try to accomplish what my parents set out for me: that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do,” she said in a 2009 interview. “But I also look up periodically and think, ‘Who else can I pull along?’ Because it’s a failure if I’m up here by myself.”

The last thing America needed right now is the loss of a smart voice.