During the 2004 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, moderator Gwen Ifill posed a question that, in modern parlance, amounted to a mic drop.
“I want to talk to you about AIDS,” she said. “And not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?”
At the time, AIDS was the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 25 and 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but neither candidate was prepared for the question. “I was not aware that it was that severe an epidemic there,” admitted Cheney, then vice president in the Bush administration. Even Cheney’s use of “there” was telling, as if African-American women lived in some distant, forgotten land.
Like much of the country, the candidates weren’t wrestling with issues affecting the African-American community, let alone specifically black women. That night, in the spotlight with two men vying to be a heartbeat from the presidency, only Ifill was doing that work.
Since her death last week, Ifill has been hailed as one of the greatest journalists of her generation. From her days as a Washington Post and New York Times reporter to her move to television on NBC News, then PBS as moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and, with Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and co-managing editor of “NewsHour,” she distinguished herself as tough, fair, and always meticulously prepared. Woodruff called Ifill “a supernova in a profession loaded with smart and talented people.”
In an industry still overwhelmingly white and male, Ifill was also a beacon for African-American journalists, especially black women. With Ifill, one could see long-barred doors pried open through tenacity and talent. During a “NewsHour” tribute to Ifill, journalist Kevin Merida said when he met Ifill “she felt a little like a unicorn.” That was more than 30 years ago when Merida was a Boston University student and editor of the school’s black student newspaper, and Ifill, a Simmons College graduate, was working at the Boston Herald-American.
“For many young black journalists or aspiring black journalists, we didn’t know many people like Gwen,” said Merida, editor of ESPN’s sports and culture website, The Undefeated. Today, journalists of color are more visible. NBC’s Lester Holt anchors the network’s Nightly News. Dean Baquet is executive editor of The New York Times. MSNBC’s Joy Reid and Tamron Hall, and (for better or worse) CNN’s Don Lemon host news shows on their respective networks.
Still, newsroom diversity remains an insistent issue. As the nation becomes more multicultural, figures for working journalists of color have stagnated over the past decade. While minorities now make up 37 percent of this country’s population, newsroom representation is stuck between 12 to 14 percent. According to a 2015 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, there were 32,900 daily working journalists; 12.7 percent, or 4,200, were people of color. (At The Boston Globe, people of color make up about 15 percent of the more than 350 full-time and part-time editorial employees.)
For the past decade, shrinking newsrooms have been forced to do more with less. Yet the mission for trained, competent journalists has never been more essential. Reporters of color bring varied experiences, opinions, and observations overlooked in predominantly white newsrooms — that’s how Ifill forced the AIDS deaths of black women on a national debate stage. Whether in digital or traditional media, journalists of color must occupy an integral role in disseminating the news, and in greater numbers than ever before.
Ifill was always attuned to this. While moderating a debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she asked a question about race, but not in a way anyone expected from a black woman: “I want to talk to you about white people.”
“White people?” said Sanders incredulously, as the audience tittered. She asked, “Don’t [working-class whites] have a reason to be resentful?” As with Cheney and Edwards, the candidates were caught off guard; Ifill had considered the issues more broadly than they did. Perhaps if the Democrats had been better prepared to answer her question, Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, would be making plans to move into the White House.
As Ifill did throughout her career, reporters of color understand and embrace their unique role. Faced with an incoming administration led by man who loves nothing more than threatening press freedoms and tweet-storming newspapers and individual reporters, racial stagnation in newsrooms not only hurts the media, but the citizens the media is designed to inform. Journalists of color may no longer be unicorns, but they are still too rare at a time when their voices will be needed most.
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.