What Gwen Ifill’s obituaries reveal about our conception of “good behavior”

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When the media started running Gwen Ifill retrospectives after her passing on November 14, I was captivated. For the first time, I even regretted not owning a TV these last few years to watch her nightly PBS coverage. Ifill was exactly the type of role model I’d seek out: a woman who bravely ventured into a male-dominated field and dedicated herself to asking hard questions.

A woman of color, Ifill overcame especially significant barriers to achieve success as a reporter. Greeted by a seething gesture when she started at the Boston Herald-American in 1976—a note left on her desk that read, “Go home, [n-word]”—she strode post hostility and built an illustrious career. Ifill covered Bill Clinton’s presidential race in 1992 for The New York Times, moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, became the first black woman to host a national political talk show (Washington Week on PBS), and in 2013 was named co-anchor of PBS News Hour.

But as much as I enjoyed learning more about Ifill’s pioneering journalism, something about the coverage of her legacy left me uneasy. The words I encountered in obituaries and appreciations describing Ifill weren’t “tough,” “bold,” or “incisive,” even though her close friend and former NBC co-host John Dickerson vouched that she “cut through the fog” with her “impolitic” inquiries, and President Obama touted her dedication to “asking tough questions” and “holding people in power accountable.”

Rather, according to obituaries, Ifill was best-known for her “grace,” “humility,” and “professionalism.” And while of course it’s possible to embody warmth and authority at once, as PBS News Hour executive producer Sara Just acknowledged of Ifill, the overwhelming focus on the demure side of Ifill’s personality struck me as imbalanced. My discomfort only increased as I dug deeper into Ifill’s inventory of reportage and interviews, like this one on black leadership (“We have to speak it’s name,” she says about the phrase “black leadership”) and this Washington Week segment in which she discusses race, gender, and politics in explicit terms. I encountered a woman much stronger and more direct than her obits would have led me to believe.

The language softening Ifill’s demeanor raised the highest red flag when it came to addressing her uphill career battle as a black woman. The New Yorker claimed that she “helped to quietly upend” the white male status quo, but footage of Ifill showed that she addressed race head-on—at least in the last several years. There was nothing quiet about her standing up and asking, “How do we deal with race conflict and our inability to see each other?” during the America after Charleston town hall in 2015, or announcing, “Let me turn this on its head…I’m going to talk to you about white people, okay?” as she moderated the Clinton-Sanders PBS debate this past February.

When the media started running Gwen Ifill retrospectives after her passing on November 14, I was captivated. For the first time, I even regretted not owning a TV these last few years to watch her nightly PBS coverage. Ifill was exactly the type of role model I’d seek out: a woman who bravely ventured into a male-dominated field and dedicated herself to asking hard questions.

A woman of color, Ifill overcame especially significant barriers to achieve success as a reporter. Greeted by a seething gesture when she started at the Boston Herald-American in 1976—a note left on her desk that read, “Go home, [n-word]”—she strode post hostility and built an illustrious career. Ifill covered Bill Clinton’s presidential race in 1992 for The New York Times, moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, became the first black woman to host a national political talk show (Washington Week on PBS), and in 2013 was named co-anchor of PBS News Hour.

Maybe my hypotheses are unfounded. After all, as far as obituaries go, it’s customary to remember a person’s favorable attributes. Maybe grace and professionalism are behaviors we should all aspire to embody. But then I have to ask, whose standards are we using to define “favorable?” Who gets to plot a person’s traits on the positivity scale, and by whose conception of “good behavior” are we abiding?

If it’s the dictionary’s, Merriam Webster explains “good behavior” as “proper or correct conduct or comportment.” “Proper” and “correct” are also privy to interpretation, which the dictionary actually acknowledges. The definition of “correct” apparently depends on circumstance, given the word is defined as “appropriate in a particular situation.” Meanwhile, the definition of “proper” reads something like a choice: “correct according to social or moral rules.” And it’s this distinction between social and moral propriety that I find most illuminating in attaching approval to someone else’s (in this case, Ifill’s) actions.

Given that empowered groups in our society (read: white people, men) disproportionately decide which behaviors count as “socially proper,” praising someone’s adherence to this structure is problematic. On the other hand, moral propriety—treating humans like humans—sounds like something every sane person can sign up for. Morally good behavior, I think, is where we find that overlap between being a warm-spirited human like Ifill, and standing up for equal rights without being told how to do so.

I came out of my Ifill research affair no less skeptical of her coverage, but even more admiring of Ifill herself. Her signature warmth seems to have come out of a deeply moral place, as did her tough reporting style that promoted honesty and integrity among politicians. As her PBS News Hour co-host Judy Woodruff said, Ifill elevated the national discourse. No matter what adjectives the press uses to describe Ifill, it must be said: that’s quite a feat.