When most people lament larger-than-life legends that 2016 snatched from us too soon, they focus on names like Prince and David Bowie, figures so unrivaled in their contributions that collective mourning over their passing seemed to be among the few things to unite us during a divisive year.
But for those of us working in media, particularly those of us who are women of color, learning of Gwen Ifill’s passing was like losing Marian Anderson, Nina Simone, and Billie Holliday in the same day. Her contributions were that enormous, her shoes that big to fill, and her influence that far-reaching.
Much has already been written about Gwen’s extraordinary career. A few highlights include: moderating two vice-presidential debates, being part of the first all-female anchor team, and on Wednesday she would have been the first African American to receive the Columbia Journalism School’s John Chancellor Award.
But I want to take a moment to explain what she meant to some of us beyond her résumé.
Gwen was one of the greatest journalists working, but her contributions were not limited to her reporting.
She spoke openly of the racism she endured early in her career, and endure she did, ultimately climbing the ladder in our profession, and with every rung opening doors in media that all black women working today have walked through, myself included.
Her trailblazing extended beyond race. When women of color finally began securing on-air opportunities, many fit a certain mold early on. They were often lighter skinned, or had more Eurocentric features. Consider news legends Sue Simmons, Carole Simpson, and Dana Tyler—all stellar journalists in their own right whom I admire immensely. Their appearances, however, appealed to white standards of beauty. Gwen’s skin color, and trademark short do’ and the enormous acclaim she enjoyed, sent a message to all of us who aspired to follow in her footsteps that we could succeed based on the quality of our work and our work alone—even if we didn’t have fair skin or a tiny nose. (I have neither.)
But perhaps her greatest contribution was in showing us that you could maintain a career rooted in work with integrity. In an age when all of us working in this field feel pressure to worry about how many clicks or tweets something we write or say will get, we always knew Gwen was ultimately worried about things like truth and accuracy. Though our industry and the world changed—into one in which the Kardashians were deemed 60 Minutes worthy, and a reality-show host deemed president-elect—her standards never did change. Neither did the quality of her journalism. I know I am not the only person who felt that on those days that people poked at our profession like a piñata—often with good reason, particularly this election year—she was one of the beacons of light that made us proud, but also helped keep us accountable.
Though I didn’t know Gwen well, she showed me a measure of kindness throughout my career that was not only a hallmark of her character but a testament to her generosity of spirit. I first met her shortly after I had begun appearing on television. I told her how much I admired her. She could not have been more gracious, took the time to chat, and I finally mustered up the courage to ask her if she had any career advice.
Among the pieces of advice: Never become anyone’s token, and be conscious of the power of my words and image and how they are being used by me, as well as by others. We talked for a bit about what that meant. Over the years we crossed paths at various social events, and the conventions. Though we were not close, and she never knew this, the Gwen Ifill test became the test that most shaped my career. When I was offered an opportunity, whether it was to appear on a certain television show, or take a meeting about a certain media job, I asked myself if I would be proud to tell Gwen Ifill about it the next time we crossed paths. Would I feel like I was honoring the advice she gave me? Would I feel like I was honoring the path she worked so hard to pave for people like me?
If an opportunity didn’t pass the test, I passed. Though I may not have always succeeded, I’ve tried my best to follow the lead she set for all of us, and I know I’m not the only one she inspired in such a way.
Her loss not only leaves us with one fewer outstanding journalist, but with one fewer prominent journalist of color in an industry already struggling with issues of diversity. While the ascent of Lester Holt to the anchor chair and as presidential-debate moderator is worth celebrating, the numbers regarding minority talent in newsrooms across the country are not. According to The Atlantic, “In 2014, all minority groups accounted for 22.4 percent of television journalists, 13 percent of radio journalists, and 13.34 percent of journalists at daily newspapers. Pretty pathetic, considering the fact that minorities make up 37.4 percent of the U.S. population.” Even more pathetic when one considers that issues such as racial profiling, immigration, criminal-justice reform and the rise of a racially charged political landscape have become the defining issues of our time; issues that won’t be covered as fully if journalists of color are not playing a role in the coverage.
So as we all look for ways to pay homage to Gwen Ifill and her legacy in the days and weeks to come, one way is for those of us already in this industry to do better. Another is to encourage talented young people of color to get into this industry and help them stay there. Recruit, mentor, encourage and perhaps most of all, help financially if you can. Because research shows that with its many no-paying or low-paying internships and entry level salaries, media is increasingly becoming a hobby profession for the white and affluent. Not only will that result in limited perspective in the newsroom, but less well-rounded reporting.
It will also mean that our profession would be deprived of finding the next Gwen Ifill, and wouldn’t that be a shame.