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.

 

 

Women in the Newsroom: Burned Out and Fed Up

That’s the title of a live chat held by the Association for  Education in Journalism and Mass Communications last week about a recent study showing that women are being driven from the newspaper field. The survey, published in the summer, 2009 Newspaper Research Journal, found that 60 percent of respondents either plan to leave the field or are seriously consider it. The link below takes you to the replay of the conversation with the study’s author, Scott Reinardy, an assistant professor  in the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. Other participants in the conversation include women who have given up newspapering and others who are considering it.

LIVE Chat Replay: Women in the Newsroom.

What “premium news content” will you pay for?

Steve Outing asks a great question about the emergence of various “freemium” content models for news outlets:
“[W}hat is this premium content that newspaper companies can produce for the web (and mobile devices) that will get online users spending?”

Content that serves the needs of diverse communities might be the key to building successful “freemium” models.

Read the post, comments and Outing’s follow-up post for some interesting ideas. I think there are some niche possibilities for creating products tailored to the needs our increasingly diverse communities.  My state, New Jersey, is both racially diverse and home to immigrants from more than 100 nations according to a 2009 study described in this article from the Newark Star-Ledger. I’m a middle-class, suburban-dwelling, physically-challenged, working African American mother who has lived and worked in the state for most of the last 35 years. Based on that experience and those of others I’ve met along the way, here are some of the kinds of information that people I know look for:

  • For people considering moving into a new community:
    • How diverse is the community, both economically and culturally?
      • Are there multicultural hair salons?
      • What’s the range of religious institutions represented there?
      • What kinds of multicultural civic institutions are represented?
    • The school report card doesn’t tell me Help me understand how the school system will affect my children.
      • Is there an achievement gap in the schools? If so, what measures are being taken to address it?
      • Are there support groups for children of color, such as the invaluable African American Parents Support Group in the West-Windsor Plainsboro district?
      • How do the schools handle the needs of diverse learners? Show me their commitment to culturally responsive teaching.
      • What enrichment programs are available and what do they cost? (In the affluent West-Windsor Plainsboro district, I had to pay for my daughter’s clarinet in order for her to participate in her elementary school’s music program. In the middle-class Ewing school system where she finished high school, instruments were free.  It’s not the only factor in deciding where to live, but when you have a child who is serious about participating in the arts or other enrichment activities, knowing the costs matters.
  • For people with disabilities:
    • I’d pay for quality, consistently-updated information about transportation affordability and accessibility.
    • How about an Augmented Reality app that would allow me to hold my phone up to a building and trigger a map of accessible building entrances?
  • For small business owners and non-profit administrators:
    • What are the local implications of federal and state incentives for building green businesses?
    • How about a comprehensive guide to technical assistance workshops, webinars and other services that will help business owners and non-profit managers understand what they need to do to qualify for relevant grant and loan programs?

That’s just a couple of thoughts off the top of my head. What are your thoughts?