Gwen Ifill, best of journalism’s best, to be immortalized on a postage stamp

In September 2018 I received a call from Carol Stroud, who does research for the U.S. Postal Service. Stroud explained that a Gwen Ifill postage stamp was under consideration. Deservedly so, I thought. During a 39-year journalism career, Ifill began at the Boston Herald-American, moved on to the Baltimore Evening Sun, began covering presidential politics at the Washington Post, and advanced to the New York Times, where she was White House correspondent. 

Gwen Ifill, Co-anchor of PBS NewsHour’s 2012 political coverage, listens to a response from New York Times columnist David Brooks as they do a dress rehearsal on Sunday afternoon in advance of the opening of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The opening official convention has been delayed until Tuesday due to the presence of Tropical Storm Isaac in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s west coast. (Photo by Tom Kennedy/PBSNewsHour)

What an incredible career climb, many of us thought in the mid-1990s; however, Ifill was not finished. She pivoted to another news medium, television, and was a congressional correspondent for NBC News. Later, Ifill moved to the “News Hour” on PBS as a correspondent. Soon, she made history as part of the first two-woman anchor duo, pairing with Judy Woodruff. In addition, Ifill was moderator and managing editor of PBS’ “Washington Week,” where on Friday nights at 8 p.m., the best-sourced capital correspondents gathered around a table to analyze the inner workings of Washington. Ifill was the queen of the table. 

Furthermore, Ifill moderated vice-presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, the latter in which Ifill earned pop culture notoriety: In an “SNL” skit, Queen Latifah played Ifill, flummoxed by wacky answers to questions she posed to candidate Sarah Palin. In 2009, Ifill’s book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” was published.

In doing research for the Postal Service, Stroud found my Ifill references in “Rugged Waters: Black Journalists,” [2003, August Press] my second book. There I chronicled when Ifill was among a handful of A-list black journalists who left the New York Times in 1994, moves that shocked colleagues and the management. Ifill said at that time that she did not exit out of frustration or anger but moved to NBC because of opportunity. She was enthusiastically recruited by the late Tim Russett, iconic host of “Meet the Press.” Also, in 2012, I was quoted in a Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine article, a time when Ifill wowed viewers at PBS “News Hour” and “Washington Week.” 

I accepted Stroud’s invitation to serve as a consultant, which meant checking an 800-word essay for tone and accuracy, and reviewing the commissioned artwork, a 2008 Robert Severi photograph that was redesigned by art director Derry Noyes. I agreed that the image was attractive and appropriate. 

In addition to career excellence, Ifill was defined by her friendly professionalism, and, grace. The Ifill stamp is 43rd in the USPS Black Heritage series, according to the news release announcing the 2020 stamps lineup. Traditionally, Black Heritage Series stamps are released in February. 

Ifill “represents the best of the best in journalism,” I said Oct. 22 when contacted by the Baltimore Sun, on the day of the USPS announcement. “I’m a great admirer of her and I’m glad this moment has come so that she can be immortalized.” 

What made Ifill so amazing? “To suggest Gwen Ifill was a talented reporter is like offering that Mozart was a pretty good composer,” wrote Peter Jensen in a rare, signed Baltimore Sun editorial Oct. 23. He said Ifill was already a camera-ready newscaster 36 years ago when she was an ink-in-the-veins local politics reporter for the Evening Sun newspaper. 

Ifill’s method was infused with the sense of giving people – especially those outside the Washington, D.C. bubble – chances to be heard and respected. Even as a young reporter during the tense Boston busing for racial desegregation case, she managed to interview people who appeared at first glance to be menacing and persuade them to talk about their concerns. At high-profile televised national office candidate debates later in her career, Ifill reliably asked questions that voters in the hinterlands wished they could ask. 

Donna Britt, Mireile Grangenois, Sonya Ross, Michele Norris, Gwen Ifill, Lynne Adrine and Marilyn Milloy. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Merida)

Late January marked four months since I agreed to vet the application for the probable Gwen Ifill USPS stamp. I was sworn to keep quiet until an affirmative announcement was made. I kept my promise. 

Wayne Dawkins is an associate professor at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication in Baltimore. His profile of Gwen Ifill will be published in the forthcoming American National Biography published by Oxford University Press. Follow him on Twitter @waydaw.

Media get on right side of history with gay NFL player coverage

Fewer than 24 hours after University of Missouri football player Michael Sam officially announced he was gay, Sports Illustrated placed a story online using unidentified sources saying this would hurt his chances to be drafted in the National Football League.

And fewer than 24 hours after that report came a barrage of media reports and opinions unequivocally supporting Sam.

While the Sam furor slowed down, the question of homosexuality spends more than its fair share of time in the media spotlight. The Sam story was just weeks old when the state of Arizona tried to pass a law that allowed people to refuse service to gays because it interfered with their religion. Again, media were quick to take a stand against this law.

Most numbers tracking support of gay marriage put the percentages somewhere between 53 percent and 59 percent in favor of gay marriage, with a March 2014 Washington Post poll putting the number at 59 percent favoring gay-marriage rights. That’s still more than 40 percent of people opposing gay marriage, yet a quick and statistically unreliable Google search shows media support at a much higher rate (even Bill O’Reilly came out in favor of gay marriage).

Is this an example of a liberal media? Is this an example of a godless media? Or is this an example of media coming down in favor of civil rights?

Some of the coverage – and the consistent stance of media – comes from a natural fear of being vilified in the Twitterverse for making an uneducated or homophobic statement in print. In May 2013, NBA player Jason Collins came out. Most reactions were positive, though one writer, from a small Illinois daily, wrote a homophobic, ill-conceived article about Collins. Jim Romenesko picked up the article on his website within a day, and soon people were piling on the writer from across the United States.

It was an example of how anything a person can do something stupid enough in print to make people pay attention. So, maybe some writers were afraid to let their homophobic sentiments make a public appearance in Sam’s case, knowing the ramifications of such statements. Call it a spiral of silence or a bandwagon effect, but some reporters might shy away from making negative statements about Sam or gay marriage. Most appear to be ready to make the statement that a gay man on an NFL squad, or a gay married couple living next door, isn’t going to harm anybody.

One man, Dallas sports anchor Dale Hansen of WFAA (an ABC affiliate) gave the best response to the Sam story. Hansen mentioned the Sports Illustrated story that said some men would be “uncomfortable” playing on the same team with an openly gay player, and then said, “You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs and that’s perfectly OK, you kill people while driving drunk, that guy’s welcome.” Hansen followed with a list of current NFL player transgressions, including rape, attempted murder, prostitution, and more, and followed that with: “But if you love another man –, well, now you’ve gone too far.”

Hansen framed the story perfectly. Why worry about a person’s sexual preferences when we have so many other things that are wrong with the NFL and college sports? And he framed the story in a powerful way, placing love, gay or straight, on one level, and comparing that to a completely different level, the true issues that face a league such as the NFL. In addition, he looked at the issue and wondered why the NFL wasn’t concerned with real problems, because Sam certainly doesn’t qualify as a problem.

In fact, the same University of Missouri football players who were praised for being so accepting of Sam were mentioned in a story by ESPN about the possible rape of Sasha Menu Courey, a Missouri swimmer who claimed to have been raped in 2011. Her story was ignored by Missouri officials. She later left the school and committed suicide. Media should have paid more attention to this story than Sam but rape stories are too common.

The first openly gay NFL football player, now that’s news. Maybe it should be. Media chronicle changes in society. Accepting that an openly gay man may be playing in the NFL marks a change in our cultural attitude. That change is the Hansen captured so well in his editorial. Sam’s story is important because of how people reacted. Sure, there was the Sports Illustrated side, saying that the league wasn’t ready for change. But there also was the other side that said that it didn’t matter if the NFL was ready for change; society has already changed, and the league should catch up.

Sam is a story. Gay marriage is a story. Our culture is changing. Maybe the media noticed and are trying to be more accepting.

Jack Burkman, a lobbyist in Washington, promised to talk of Congress into passing a bill that would make it illegal to have a gay man in an NFL locker room. He promptly lost a number of clients, including conservative lawmakers.

Politicians have been inundated with a phrase from those who support legalizing gay marriage. They’re told to “get on the right side of history.” The media have done that with the Sam story, and with the Arizona religious freedom bill. This isn’t about a liberal media, or even a fear of saying the wrong thing. Media, on the whole, have decided to get on the right side of history on this one.