Remembering Gwen Ifill and the Demise of Industry Journalism

Gwen Ifill (1955-2016) was an incredible role model to me as a news journalist.  She was not only a journalist, she was a deeply politically educated.  And like myself, a devout Christian.  She taught me that willfully educating oneself on capitalism, socialism, communism or Marx did not diminish one’s identity as a God-fearing believer.  And by God-fearing, I mean a kind of fear that is reverential, not abusing.  Gwen Ifill was also a role model to me as, like myself, the child of Black immigrants who taught their children to be their absolute best, despite the odds.  

Her parents are, like mine, from the English Caribbean, and raised children who are determined to bulldoze perceptions influenced by race.  Yesterday I attended the funeral service of Gwen Ifill at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church on M Street in Washington, DC, and I was most struck by the part of the service where her cousin Sherrilyn Ifill said that hers “was the most American of success stories.”  I was amazed looking at how strongly the congregation at this service stood and clapped in agreement with this point.  Over the past week since her passing, I studied the life of Gwen Ifill, and I was most struck by her ability to be what the mainstream calls as “objective” as possible.  She is most famous perhaps for her role as a television news reporter and a vice presidential debate moderator.  In the many videos and articles she wrote, I found that there was a marked difference between her journalism and the journalism of an Ida B. Wells, Pauline Hopkins, and Marcus Garvey that I am also reading at this time: the difference between an advocacy journalist and an industry journalist.  

I realized that I am impressed with Gwen Ifill’s life, along with those in the memorial service because of her incredibly influential work as an industry journalist.  Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World And Me that he was GIVEN the art of journalism by white editors, like Gwen Ifill was.  However Wells, Hopkins, and Garvey saw Jim Crow and CREATED their own journalism that was intended to end Jim Crow.  Industry journalists essentially have to follow the dictates of their editors whom, of course, are beholden to the industrialists that employ them.  At Ms. Ifill’s funeral spoke Sharon Percy Rockefeller who is the chairwoman of WETA television station that aired the weekly show Ifill hosted for over a decade.  

Ms. Rockefeller is a member according to Wikipedia of the Bilderberg Group, which represents what Lorraine Hansberry has called “titan of the system.”  Advocacy journalist Luke Rudkowski interviewed other industry journalists like Charlie Rose about the Bilderberg Group.  Their funders make key assumptions that ultimately justify key aspects of U.S. industry:  military occupations, justify military spending and justify corporate tax cuts.  Although Gwen Ifill was a key role model for any Black women on television aspiring to be a news journalist, the questions and statements she made on television for the most part justified U.S. industry.  

Ms. Ifill asked Hillary Clinton on PBS Newshour in 2014 whether she can see a scenario where Vladimir Putin can “step back” from the Russian border with the Ukraine.  However this basically ASSUMED that the U.S. military should intervene in Ukraine when this country has much more pressing needs than staging a military occupation of Ukraine in order to weaken Russia.  Lenin wrote about the fallacy of the “Freedom of Criticism” chargewithin Ukraine in What Is To Be Done?  Too often, this charge justifies supporting those causes funded by capitalists.  The United States nation has more pressing needs like stopping the mass incarceration of Black people; like ending the public school closures that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.  Much more important concerns than making sure Putin and Russia do not control Ukraine.  Ms. Ifill’s question was a question that assumed the necessity of U.S. military intervention in Ukraine when it shouldn’t have.  Ms. Ifill assumes that the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) occupation of Ukraine funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars should remain, even though, as Paul Robeson said in 1960, NATO is an organization that is fascist in content.  This means it is an organization that prioritizes colonialism over democracy. 

Peter Hart writes in 2013 about Ms. Ifill’s assumption that justifies a siege on Iran.  He writes that in the PBS Newshour on 1/28/13, she referred to concerns about the “threat posed by Iran’s  nuclear program” which again wrongfully assumes that Iran’s nuclear program is in fact a threat.  This is an assumption that U.S. industry depends on in order justify a military intervention in Iran which President Obama was able to avoid.  The International Atomic Energy Agency did not arrive at that conclusion.  

In her 2011 interview with the American Archive of Television, Ifill explained her allegiance to the industry when she said that she could not report a story that Jim Lehrer would not approve.  She said he was “pretty rigid about what he wanted the news to be.”  And that he “surrounded himself with people who thought…the same way.”  By “rigid” Ms. Ifill basically means accomodationist or compatible with hegemony.  Lehrer was reportedly “seething” for being passed over as a presidential debate moderator for being too “safe.”  He basically taught Gwen Ifill the same thing even though, at her memorial Judy Woodruff said Ifill “hated superficial journalism.”  When former Attorney General Eric Holder spoke, he said “we called each other cousins…because of our shared island history…We come from Barbados.”  Holder played a key role in turning a blind eye to the human rights atrocitiescommitted by the Chiquita banana company, which is a successor to the United Fruit Company that advocacy journalist Marcus Garvey worked in Honduras and Costa Rica to undermine.  

Holder was the proverbial Prospero to the United Fruit Company’s Caliban and helped the colonizer maintain control.  Ifill’s father is Panamanian-Barbadian whereas her mother, like both of Eric Holder’s parents are from Barbados.  Barbados has a special role in the history of the Eastern Caribbean.  It is closest to Africa and it is widely known as having the most literate population of Caribbean islands.  It has uniquely answered the question of independence since the Garvey movement with a resounding no.  Its government and people have asserted that it is more advantageous to remain a colony of the United Kingdom.  However most related to the roles of Gwen Ifill and Eric Holder to U.S. industry to me is the role that the leader of Barbados played during the Grenadian revolution from the year I was born, 1979, to 1983.  According to the revolution’s press, the Free West Indian,

“the relation of forces against Grenada was strengthened considerably by late 1980s with the accession to power of Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Edward Seaga in Jamaica, and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.  Three newly elected leaders, together with Tom Adams from Barbados, kept up a sustained onslaught against the PRG [People’s Revolutionary Government] of Grenada which was to culminate in the United States invasion of October 1983.” 
One of the leaders of this revolution, Maurice Bishop said:

“we remember the Barbadian newspaper, the Beacon, that was going around carrying these articles, saying how our Cuban comrades, the internationalist workers in our country, were in our country, were in Grenada exploiting our women…and when the facts were sent to the Beacon, that too never get published, because that is what they mean by freedom of the press.”

Bishop’s criticism of the press in Barbados trying to scare its citizens into fearing Grenada is similar to Lenin’s critique of the press in Kiev trying to scare its citizens into fearing the Soviet bloc.  I noticed how those who sided with reporting lies to justify U.S. industry are basically industry journalists who tell the industry side of the story, in this case, the lie that Cuban men were exploiting Grenadian women in order to stoke fear in the readers about the socialist society in Grenada.  Hegemony plays on male domination over women’s bodies in numerous cases.  It was clear that before this U.S. invasion, industry journalists cozy with the leadership of Tom Adams justified and created the pretext for military occupation the way that industry journalists’ reporting justified military occupation in Ukraine and Iran.  

Don Rojas wrote that “the imperialist power, with their policy of ‘divide and rule’ have used historical factors [along language lines–some of us speaking English, others Spanish, French, or Dutch] to keep us weak, insular, dependent, poor and backward.”  This could be argued about all countries that cooperated with the U.S. to undermine Grenada from 1979 to 1983.  And Industry Journalists that supported this undermining.  Barbados decision not to be independent seemed to leave them no other choice.  

Gwen Ifill is an example of a professional who was NOT weak, NOT insular, NOT poor, or NOT backward, however she worked in a news industry that depends on most Black people in the world remaining so; a news industry that crushes socialist revolution.  Eric Holder worked in a government that did the same thing.  Industry journalists (like colonies) make assumptions that the industry (or mother country) wants them to make, whereas advocacy journalists like Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930) don’t.  

I am interested in how industry journalists have to remain industry in order to eat.  And the difficulty in advocacy journalists being able to eat.  There is a certain freedom in creating your own headlines instead of being forced to report headlines given to you by liberals like Jim Lehrer, or even Rupert Murdoch.  Advocacy journalists like Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells called attention to the most glaring inequalities of Jim Crow in ways that cost their overall health.  

Being an advocate requires sacrifice and a willingness to challenge the lockstep march of U.S. industry and U.S. imperialism. Where Hopkins was questioning the growth of U.S. imperialism, Gwen Ifill’s questions seem to assume it.  

When the memorial service congregation applauded Gwen Ifill being “a model American story,” what exactly were they applauding?  The fact that journalists like Gwen Ifill should continue avoiding the more difficult questions that promote division of Black and brown people like the division the U.S. promoted between Grenada and other Eastern Caribbean islands?  The necessity of U.S. industry to continue by depending on tokens like myself and like other industry journalists to justify military occupations? 

We need advocacy journalists like Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley, and Tim Black more than ever today who CREATE their headlines, instead of following the dictates and assumptions of U.S. industry.  We are going to depend more and more on advocacy journalism now that Trump is going to be president.  We must create and disseminate arguments against justifying budget cuts especially since the biggest cause of budget deficits are capital gains tax cuts.  We must defend Social Security.  DOING SO WILL REQUIRE A DEMISE OF INDUSTRY JOURNALISM.  

My growth away from being an industry journalist paralleled my growth away from the A.M.E. church that I as a Christian left because I asked leaders of two different A.M.E. churches I attended whether they would marry same gender couples and they honestly said no.  I appreciate their honesty and their taking the time to inform me personally about why they would not marry me, however, as a same gender loving individual, I have a growing disaffection for churches who try to convince me about the love of God, but are unable to celebrate that love within a life partnership because of intolerance and a very conservative interpretation of a document that was once used to justify the enslavement my ancestors.  

My growing disaffection for the A.M.E. church is like my growing disaffection for industry journalism that accommodates mass incarceration and austerity.  I would rather join a church which chart their OWN path to marrying couples regardless of their gender, instead of following the conservative path laid out for them like industry journalists have done.  Robert Frost’s poem said “two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”   –RF.    

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.

One thought on “Remembering Gwen Ifill and the Demise of Industry Journalism”

  1. Wow. Um, I guess as a White liberterian Trump supporter, I will not be on your Christmas Card list. Oh well…I wish you the best anyway. Somehow all of us imperfect creatures will figure out how to get along.

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