Radcliffe Institute to Honor Journalism Trailblazers

Photo courtesy of PBS NewshourPhoto courtesy of PBS Newshour
The Boston Globe
May 23, 2017
By Adrian Walker, Boston Globe columnist

Michele Norris knew Gwen Ifill only slightly when she walked into the newsroom of The Washington Post in 1987 for a job interview.

But Ifill gave her a critical piece of advice.

“She said, ‘You should add $10,000 to whatever you’re going to ask for. That’s what the white guys do,’ ” the National Public Radio broadcaster recalled. “I didn’t get everything I asked for, but I had my little dose of Gwen Ifill confidence. She has been doing that for me ever since.”

Norris paused. “As you can see, I have trouble talking about her in the past tense.”

Ifill, one of the best journalists in Washington or anywhere else, died last November of cancer at the age of 61. Only a small circle of friends and colleagues had known she was ill until shortly before she died.

On Friday, Ifill and her “PBS NewsHour” coanchor Judy Woodruff will receive a medal from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The medal is awarded each year to a woman who has a had a major impact on society. Recent winners include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen. Such was the partnership, and distinction, of Ifill and Woodruff that they will be the first joint honorees.

Ifill had close ties to Boston. She was a graduate of Simmons College and began her career at the Boston Herald American.

Ifill’s award wasn’t intended to be posthumous. Woodruff and Ifill were selected 18 months ago, with every expectation they would appear together. Instead, Norris will accept on Ifill’s behalf.

“She had all the gifts anyone would want to be a great journalist,” Woodruff said. “She had insatiable curiosity, she was a strong writer, and she had extraordinary intellect. It was a powerful package.”

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study was founded in 1999 to study issues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

The events on Friday will include a panel on “Integrity in Media,” moderated by Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

That topic of journalistic integrity has taken on increased urgency since the last presidential campaign and the ascendancy of President Trump, said Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen.

“At the time we selected it, integrity in journalism was a back-burner issue,” Cohen said. “Now we’re talking about alternative facts all the time. The Oxford English Dictionary has labeled ‘post-truth’ the word of the year. The president has labeled the press the enemy of the people.” This administration has been a daily reminder that quality journalism matters.

Regarding the Trump era, Ifill’s friends can’t help reflecting on how immersed she would be by this bizarre period in her beloved Washington. Woodruff imagines her with her head down, reporting like crazy.

“She loved politics and she loved politicians, and nobody was better at being two steps ahead of where the story was going,” she said

Norris believes she would be energized by the moment and proud of the work being done by her peers.

“I would love to see a Trump-Gwen sitdown,” she said with a chuckle. “I think that would be uniquely interesting. I think she would ask tough questions. I think she would demonstrate particular courage around the rise of nationalism and the rise of protest and also the tragedy of white nationalists flexing their muscle.”

But Norris said she mostly thinks of Ifill in more personal terms. She remembers her tireless support of others, and the quiet confidence that betrayed no ego. As she recalls, Ifill was a star who never behaved like a star.

“I don’t know that she ever understood how she touched people and how close they felt to her,” Norris said. “She showed that you can make an impact without being edgy, you can be tough without being cynical, and you can live your life in a way that reflects your values and reminds people of their own.”

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