Gwen Ifill: A consummate journalist who demonstrated why diversity matters

Annual book fair and authors night, National Press Club, 17 Nov. 2009. Photo: Michael Foley
Annual book fair and authors night, National Press Club, 17 Nov. 2009. Photo: Michael Foley

There are many reasons to mourn Gwen Ifill’s untimely death today at the age of 61. She was a consummate journalist of the old school variety, who rose through the ranks of newspapers and broadcasting to occupy some of the industry’s most respected positions: co-host of the PBS Newshour and moderator of Washington Week in Review. There will be many tributes and assessments of the way she broke ground by demonstrating that there is still a place for shoe-leather reporting, tough interviewing and striving for objectivity in an industry whose desperation for ratings and clicks has raised fundamental questions about its ability to fulfill its civic responsibilities, most notably in the recent Presidential election. I want to focus on one moment that embodied her excellence, her bravery and the difference that can result when we bring diverse perspectives to our national discourse.

During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Ifill made history by becoming the first African American woman to moderate the Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and his Democratic challenger, John Edwards. Ifill asked a question that exposed a huge blind spot on the part of both candidates. As she later recalled during a September 20, 2016 “Backstory” segment for Washington Week :

At the time, I was trying to figure out, there’s only one vice presidential debate, how do I get them to talk about something that’s off their topics, something they haven’t rehearsed for, something they wouldn’t expect? And I came across a number, a statistic about African American, I mean HIV infection among African American women.  Sky-rocketing at the time.  No one was talking about this. And I prefaced my question by saying, ‘You’ve both talked about AIDS in Africa, I want to talk about about AIDS in this country.  Please don’t talk about AIDS in Africa. What would you do if you were in this administration about sky-rocketing HIV infections among African American women?’ Very specific.

Neither candidate had a good answer. A statement released by the Black AIDS Institute and Essence magazine took both men to task:

Mr. Cheney’s response to Ms. Ifill’s question was “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was that severe and epidemic there”. … The Vice President’s lack of awareness about the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in African American communities speaks volumes about the low priority our government places on the lives of African Americans. …


As for Edwards, Ifill later recalled,

John Edwards’ response was, ‘Well let me give you my three-point plan for AIDS in Africa.’ I found out afterward from people who prepped him for that debate that that was the question they thought I was going to give them — an AIDS in Africa question.  So he didn’t even hear the distinction.  He just, it just clicked it. It clicked in.

ACTUP, the AIDS prevention and treatment advocacy group, ran an item about the exchange, noting, “You know the chance of that issue being raised by any of the White men who are moderating the presidential face-offs is slim.”

When Ifill talked about that moment, she didn’t focus on her identity. For her, it was about considering important issues being left out of the conversation, and making them visible. She said people would still come up to her years later and say, “I loved that AIDS question.”

People remember when these candidates reveal themselves for what they are — what they don’t know and what they do know.  So I think that’s part of the moderator’s responsibility — to let the viewers at home know what these guys… are capable of.

Godspeed, Ms. Ifill. You were one of the best among us.



Happy birthday, Dr. Mae Jemison

Dear Dr. Mae Jemison,

We have never met, but when you went to space in September, 1992, I cried, because without knowing the details of your life, I felt I knew you. I knew you the way twins who are adopted by different families recognize each other. Without reading your biography, I knew you must have spent hours of your childhood glued to the TV during those live broadcasts of Apollo and Gemini flights during the 1960s. I knew because I did, too. I figured that like me, you spent hours playing with microscopes and chemistry sets, making up your own little experiments, fantasizing about the wonders you could explore and discover one day.

I cried because you and I are contemporaries who grew up in a world imagining, as I think Margo Jefferson put it, what had not imagined us. And see, when I watched you go up on that space ship, I realized that I had unwittingly gone for the okey-doke all those years ago: despite growing up in the “Black and Proud” 60s, despite being encouraged to study science and engineering (and even being recruited as an engineering student), by the time I entered high school, I had absorbed two messages from the larger culture that, in my mind, made your achievement impossible.

First, NASA seemed the permanent province of white men, and besides, space travel seemed too far removed from the immediate concerns of the freedom struggle for me to justify focusing my energies there. Remember Gil Scott-Heron’s complaint: “A rat done bit my sister Nell/And Whitey’s on the moon?” And Marvin Gaye’s Inner-City Blues: “Rockets/Moon shots/Spend it on the have-nots…” (And yes, even though I was just 12 when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon many precocious kids of my generation did absorb the message that we had a responsibility to advance positive social change.)

I didn’t understand then what I know now: in the last several decades, it’s the mathematicians and the scientists who have changed our world.

But even without the antagonism to “exotic” scientific research that I was exposed to as a child,  I had absorbed another message that made me think I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist. I had developed an interest in writing, and the conventional wisdom at the time, in both education and popular culture, is that one could not be good at both science and the humanities. I was a science major in high school, which meant I was on track to take physics and AP bio and I didn’t take music and art. But the truth was, I wasn’t that great at chemistry, and I would come to school early to watch the orchestra practice.  At my middle school, Masterman, I had studied electronic music, and I had a basic programming class. No such opportunity presented itself at Girls’ High. So although I liked science, by the time I went to college, I had absorbed the message that I was not a “science type.”  My Princeton degree is in Politics, with a certificate in African American Studies.

By the time you joined the Astronaut Corps in 1987, I had fallen into a career as a science writer. I had worked for the Fox Chase Cancer Center and now I was at Bell Labs, where my job was to explain the basic and applied science behind emerging telecommunications technologies. I was working with brilliant people, some of them black, who created so much of what we take for granted today. One of them is  the mathematician William Massey, whom I first met at Princeton and who returned to Princeton after his Bell Labs career to become a professor of in the University’s engineering school. In this YouTube video, he talks about the accomplishments and legacy of Black scientists at Bell Labs. I had the privilege of writing about him and many of the other people whose work he describes:

It was the experience of working with people like Bill that showed me something that you’ve known for a long time – that this idea that one can’t be a scientist and a humanist at the same time is a canard. As you argued just over ten years ago, not only are the sciences and arts not opposed, they share a common creative source. In computer science education, we now know that one way to get students from under-represented backgrounds into the field is by introducing them to its expressive and creative potential. I watched you talk about how you dealt with the conventional view that there was some contradiction between your love of science, your passion for dance and your fealty to African-American culture and I wanted to cheer because somehow, you figured out that it didn’t have to be one or the other.

When you went up in space, Dr. Jemison, I cried. When you stood up and gave this speech, I cheered. You’re working on interstellar travel now. I’m working with computer scientists to create new tools for civic engagement. You are still inspiring me to think bigger, be bolder, to ferret out any remaining culturally imposed limitations I’ve absorbed. I hope you are having a happy birthday, Dr. Jemison. You continue to be a gift to us all.

Your fan,

Kim Pearson

100YSS Manifesto from 100YSS on Vimeo.

Live blog, NABJ blogging panel

I took these notes at the NABJ convention in Philadelphia in early August. Although I never got a chance to refine them, the notes will be useful for the Social Media class I will be teaching next semester.

Topic: What makes a multimedia blog successful?
Dan Farber -Great content. – the same things that make for great journalism

Neal Scarborough -Before you worry about multimedia as a blogger, decide who you are as a blogger, where your audience is or what they want.

Clay Cane – Find your style, your tone, and what you are passionate writing about. He started with a personal blog and was discovered by BET because he built a strong following. “It really is being your own brand, and selling yourself.”

Sarah Bernard, Deputy Director of Digital Strategy, the White House: Use your blog to cover undeserved stories. Be consistent.

Question: How do you drive traffic?

Clay Cane collects email subscriptions, sends out blasts when he has big news. Example: he posted an interview with Janet Jackson to his site and sent out masse emails. Some major news sites picked it up and linked to him.

Farber: learn about SEO

Moderator Markette Smith: Shows She is collecting questions via twitter at #nabjbloggingandbeyond. Question: can we attract advertising?

Cane: He got started with Notes that advertising market has changed.

Scarborough: “Blogging has really opened up.” Bites that Richard Branson has a blog.

Question: Publisher of a niche blog for lawyers wants to know how to make more money.

Moderator Smith tries to go back to how to make money.

More later: running out of power and this room is short on outlets.