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Gwen Ifill’s passing leaves a big journalistic gap

David Brooks

Every reminiscence you read about the journalist Gwen Ifill, who died this week, will describe her smile. It was not subtle. It shone from her face like some sort of spiritual explosion.

Once she told me that if she didn’t go to church on Sunday she felt a little flatter for the whole week. A spirit as deep and ebullient as hers needed nourishment and care, and when it came out it came out in her smile, which was totalistic and unrestrained.

Gwen worked in a tough business, and being an African-American woman in that business brought its own hardships and scars, but Gwen’s smile did not hold back. Her whole personality was the opposite of reticent, and timidity was a stranger to her. When the Ifill incandescence came at you, you were getting human connection full-bore.

Gwen was ebullient, as I’ve mentioned, but she was not soft. She was authoritative, an executive and confident.

I suppose every profession has a few people like this, people who love the whole profession, who pay compliments when its standards are met and who are tough when they are not.

She was ambitious. She liked moderating the big debates, even though she was a bundle of nerves just before. But she was not ambitious the way some other TV people are. Gwen was adored wherever she went, but she let the adoration roll off her, without it affecting her understanding of what was real.

She was ambitious for quality. She worked for low money at PBS. She worked doggedly on her programs, and whenever I did anything that diminished the “NewsHour” she let me know directly.

She loved her country, too. She relentlessly promoted female and African-American journalists. She had a strong affinity for badass women of all types.

The night before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, a group of journalists met in David and Katherine Bradley’s house. At the end of the evening they gathered around the piano and sang civil rights anthems and some hymns. Everybody knew the first stanza to “Amazing Grace,” but only Gwen knew the last three, which she sang alone, in honor of the past labors and future promise.

By 2012 she sensed that racial ugliness was coming out into the open. She began getting more racist reactions on social media and she moved to support her friend Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, who was getting anti-Semitic ones. Keep your head down and keep writing, she urged Goldberg; it’s what they don’t want you to do. Gwen knew what was coming.

These days it is normal to bash Washington, to want to “drain the swamp” and to attack the mainstream media. The populists are in and the establishment is out.

But I confess, when I looked at the front of The Times website on Monday and saw a photo of Stephen K. Bannon, on leave from Breitbart as chairman and rising in power, and then underneath it a photo of Gwen, who is passing from this world, I wanted to throw up. This is not progress and this is not good news.

Gwen’s death merits a bit of the reaction that greeted the death of the writer Samuel Johnson centuries ago: She has left a chasm, which nobody else can fill up and which nobody has a tendency to fill.