MIAMI — “As I suspected, the minute the debates were over, the controversy was over. No one who’d read the book thought of it as it was described in the media,” said Gwen Ifill, editor and moderator for PBS’ “Washington Week,” a roundtable, news commentary show.
When many people hear Ifill’s name, they may think about the controversy over her first book about the changing face of politics and its new era practices, rather than her years as a national news reporter.
Ifill was panned by her critics for what they saw as publicly preferring one presidential candidate over another, President Barack Obama over former rival Sen. John McCain.
With Ifill poised to moderate the one and only vice presidential debate between former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Vice President Joe Biden last year, the media erupted with the news and title of her book: The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
“You know, The Breakthrough is an interesting example of my accumulated years of being a reporter and a journalist,” said Ifill, who was imitated by Queen Latifah during a 2008 episode of “Saturday Night Live.” “Because, I wouldn’t have come up with this story if I hadn’t spent my entire year talking to all kinds of different people who, when I stopped and thought about it, I realized that they were breakthroughs.”
Ifill, who was recently featured in this year’s Miami Book Fair International at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus downtown, has no plans of writing another book – unless she has another compelling story to tell. Her Breakthrough focuses on the new generation of African-American politicians and how they have learned from their parents.
“My parents inspired me to be a journalist; they’re immigrants who moved to this country and they always believed in the possibilities of what government can do for our lives,” said Ifill, 54.
Her parents hail from Barbados and, at one point, moved to New York City, where Ifill was born.
“Being exposed to that, it made me realize the possibilities of asking questions and making demands,” she said.
As the fifth child of six children born to Urcille and Eleanor Ifill, she moved a few times throughout her childhood because of her father’s ministry. Urcille Ifill was an African Methodist Episcopal minister.
In 1977, Ifill graduated from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her first job was at The Boston Herald, where she interned for a little while until a co-worker left her a racially charged note. The Herald was so apologetic about the ordeal that they offered Ifill a staff writer position to make up for it.
By 1981, Ifill was working for The Baltimore Evening Sun, and then The Washington Post, by 1984. Her last newspaper job was with The New York Times, where she worked between 1991 and 1994. In 1994, she decided to take a job as a congressional correspondent for NBC News, which led to stints on Meet the Press and Washington Week, where she hosts the show.
She has been awarded 19 honorary degrees from schools such as Georgetown University, Howard University, Long Island University, and her alma mater, Simmons College.
“The honorary degrees don’t matter to me as much as the opportunity to present in a commencement with a live audience,” Ifill said. “I really enjoy commencement and if they give me a nice degree, I’ll take that, too.”
She continued: “I think that you guys (Millennials) are our future,” referring to people born between the late 1970s and the late 1990s.
Her video reports with Stephen Colbert on www.youtube.com have given her a voice among today’s young people, she said.
“Millennials showed last year, that you can completely wake up and hijack the process if you so choose to do it,” she said.
Thinking on how many young people voted in the 2008 presidential election, Ifill said she is proud to see the next generation of people begin their interest in politics.
“People who want to be journalists have to be endlessly curious, ask many questions, and love to write,’’ she said. “Those have always been the basics.’’
She said she is quite confident in the next generation of journalists, who very often use sites like Wikipedia.org and Google.com to research articles.
Young journalists also write content, conduct filming, and post their own stories online. In the age of do-it-yourself journalism, Ifill said, she is glad that the Millennials have found their own way of reporting.
She just hopes, she said, that they will remember the basics of journalism and take the industry to its next level.
An avid fan of Jon Stewart, “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “The Office,” Ifill uses television and books as a means to unwind from a hard day’s work. She also likes to watch “Frontline,” “Nightline,” and “60 Minutes.” When getting her news, she likes shows that dig deep into the heart of a story.
“Doing debates is a great honor,” said Ifill, who also moderated the 2004 vice presidential debates between John Edwards and Dick Cheney. “It was a great experience and the book was just the cherry on the sundae.”
Photo: Gwen Ifill