By Amy V. Simmons
In the cosmic convergence of comings and goings in the past year, several iconic Black reporters, photographers and other media giants walked on, leaving shoes impossible to fill – but footprints to follow for those colleagues who remain, and who will be entering the ranks in the years to come.
Their imprimatur was generosity, professional integrity, vision, dedication and a fierce commitment to the African American community. Individually and collectively, they demonstrated the esprit du corps of the hundreds of African Americans who work in the nation’s newsrooms, and who face added pressure as the ranks thin daily through cuts, retirements, and death.
Producing excellence in a profession that has changed so drastically in recent years would be hard enough; Black journalists experience these challenges on an exponential level. The timing contrast of the passing of these iconic figures with the current state of newsrooms and the additional challenges faced with such a First Amendment challenging, openly hostile administration coming into power, is especially challenging.
“The weight of these three exceptional journalists [Curry, Ifill and Moore] was that their talent rivaled that of any journalist in our profession,” said Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). “In the loss of these giants, we have lost perspective. This should be a wakeup call to those of us in the industry that we should be training the future ‘Acel Moores,’ ‘Gwen Ifills’ and ‘George Currys.’ We need to be — and to train able– and skilled journalists to navigate these polarized times.”
Acel Moore, 71
Acel Moore was more than merely a retired reporter, editor, and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer when he died suddenly on February 12th after years of health-related struggles. He was a mentor and teacher, in deed and by example. There was never any student or colleague that asked for his guidance, support or advice who went away without a well- thought out answer.
His dedication to his craft– and to increasing the number of Black reporters in the field — was a major focus throughout his career, which spanned 43 years.
Glover was Moore’s mentee, colleague, a close friend, and considered him a father figure. She is ever cognizant of his influence on his colleagues, his community and everyone who knew him.
“That one person should have such an impact was important,” Glover reflected. “ He was a great influence on me. I dedicate my work and my term [as NABJ president] to him.”
In an obituary published in the Philadelphia Inquirer longtime colleagues weighed in on Moore’s legacy and contributions to creating a space in newsrooms where African American reporters could practice their craft with confidence.
“More than any other individual he helped form the ethos that Black journalists move in and practice from,” said Daily News columnist Elmer Smith. “The way we see ourselves is largely an Acel image.”
Moore knew as a young man that becoming a reporter was the best way to represent his community, his city and its people – especially African Americans.
Early in his career, Moore observed inequities that directly affected coverage of the African American community – including the dearth of Black reporters and racism in the newsroom. He was fearless in addressing these issues, at a time when speaking out could have cost him his job. However, accurate coverage, due diligence and bringing more reporters of color into the newsroom was more important, so he did not back down.
All of his efforts made a difference; as the newsroom became more diverse, coverage of the Black community improved. He became an expert in that regard, and all reporters —regardless of race or background — came to rely on his expertise and counsel when tasked with a story or situation within that community, and the city at large.
“Acel always told me that the genesis of all that we do was grounded in [the principle of] equal opportunity for everyone,” Glover recalled.
This collegial respect led to his position on the Inquirer Editorial Board. Among the many honors he received, was a Pulitzer Prize and a Niemann Fellowship at Harvard University, where he honed his craft and expanded his collegial scope of influence. Moore was also active in two organizations he helped found: the Art Peters Memorial Fellowship Program (a summer internship for copy editors), and the Acel Moore Career Development Workshop. The five-week workshop—launched in 1984– provided basic journalism training to over 2,000 aspirational high school students.
When Moore joined 44 of his African American colleagues and founded the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (from which the National Association of Black Journalists emerged) in 1976, it was a relatively radical move at a time when their ranks were just beginning to grow in area newsrooms. Even taking on the name “Black” (as opposed to the then socially acceptable “Negro”) was controversial. In his Inquirer obituary, this fact was noted.
“There was a feeling among some people that signing their name on the list was a risk, that there would be a retaliation for doing that,” Mr. Moore said in a 2000 interview.
The organization survived and grew. With over 3,000 members, NABJ has provided over 40 years of advocacy and training for Black journalists around the country.
George Curry, 69
It must be said, that if George Curry was anything, he was the conscience of the Black press.
He was passionate about his family, his people and his profession. His commitment to the Black press and Black journalists was unmatched.
When he died of heart failure on August 20th at the age of 69, he was in the midst of a fundraising campaign for his popular newsmagazine, Emerge, which he relaunched as Emerge News Online. It was a labor of love and focused professional commitment.
Curry first founded the print version of the magazine in 1993, which folded in 2003. The publication was very much like Curry himself: bold, straightforward, dedicated to facts and often controversial. An unflinching, unapologetic race man and civil rights activist, Curry gave Emerge the tagline “Black America’s Newsmagazine,”
In addition to informative articles written from a unique Black perspective by the nation’s most talented writers, Curry also created many thought provoking and controversial magazine covers throughout the years. The most memorable by far had to be one which featured a representation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in a “mammy”-style bandana next to the word “BETRAYED,” which is still being discussed over twenty years later.
When Curry — a proud native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama — began his career at Sports Illustrated in 1970, he was only the second African American reporter there. From there, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, before becoming a political reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Curry later served as their New York bureau chief
Civil right’s icon Jesse Jackson — a long-time colleague and friend — worked on many projects with Curry around the world over the years. Curry also covered Jackson throughout his career, most notably during Jackson’s presidential bids in the 1980s.
When Curry was named “Journalist of the Year by NABJ” at their annual convention in Dallas — a somewhat auspicious occasion — he regaled his colleagues with flawless impressions of Jackson and James Brown, bringing the house down. His sense of humor was one of his greatest assets – especially considering the serious subject matter he covered and advocated for daily. His characteristic grin and the glint in his eye signified the beginning of either one of his legendary teases or a humorous story.
He was the first African -American to be elected president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, and led the news service for the National Newspaper Publishers Association for nine years. His syndicated column was published in many of the nation’s Black newspapers all over the country. He frequently appeared on television and radio news programs such as those hosted by Roland Martin and civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton.
Curry was fearless when it came to pursuing the truth and did not hold back criticism of the mainstream press and about emphasizing the perspective of Black journalists and the Black press when reporting on events in the African American community, like police shootings. Oftentimes, the Black press is first on the scene.
In an NPR interview, Curry stated: ‘The Black press plays a unique role, because they know right away and can recognize these kinds of stories and the value of them.”
Gwen Ifill, 61
When Gwen Ifill died at the age of 61 on November 14th, through their tears, many of her colleagues and friends — as well as many of the public figures she had interviewed over the years — flooded social media with tributes and memories that all seemed to follow the same pattern. Everyone focused on her brilliance, journalistic integrity, generosity of spirit, rapier wit and wicked sense of humor. Somehow, she managed to display these characteristics seamlessly, sometimes all at once.
All those who knew her — whether they be President of the United States or a journalism student whom she had just met moments earlier — felt immediately at ease in her presence, even if the line of questioning was tough – a genuine people person on a mission to get to the heart of the matter.
Ifill’s friend and colleague, AURN White House Correspondent April Ryan told the SUN that Ifill played a unique role in her field.
“[Gwen was] a journalism icon, and the standard for journalism. She is missed, but her legacy and body of work continues. She will be missed as a presidential debate moderator and as the model for all journalists [to follow],”Ryan said.
An AME preacher’s daughter (both of her parents were immigrants), Ifill’s first exposure to journalism came as the family gathered around the TV to watch the nightly newscasts.
“When I was, a little girl watching programs like this [the PBS Newshour she co-anchored] — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color,” she recalled in a New York Times interview once.
She was still a child when she decided that becoming a reporter herself would be the best way for her to make an impact on the chaotic and changing world she witnessed in those 1960s newscasts. Ifill majored in communications at Simmons College in Boston, where she earned her BA in 1977.
Her career began as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, followed by the Boston Herald American. She went on to become a national political reporter for The Washington Post and White House correspondent for The New York Times. Her broadcast career began at NBC and expanded at PBS.
When she took control of the anchor desk at PBS’s “Washington Week in Review” as moderator and managing editor in 1999, Ifill became the first African-American woman to host a major political TV talk show. She later made history when she became the co-anchor and co-managing editor of the “PBS Newshour,” with Judy Woodruff in 2013. Together, they were the first all-female anchor team on nightly network news.
Woodruff put it best when she said “For young women of color looking for a role model, she was it,” in a statement to the New York Times at Ifill’s passing.
“I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy [Woodruff] sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all,” Ifill told the paper herself after joining the Newshour in 2013.
Her book, entitled “The Breakthrough- Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday, January 2009) was released one day after the president’s first inauguration.
Ifill was well known for her presidential campaign coverage, especially her vice-presidential debate moderation. She was laser focused at all times, never losing control of the candidates once or allowing herself to be sidetracked or distracted like no one else in that role.
For instance, during a 2003 VP debate, then- Senator John Edwards (D-NC brought up the subject of Vice President Dick Cheney’s controversial former employer, Halliburton. Mr. Cheney asked for more time to respond than the debate rules stated.
“I can respond, Gwen, but it’s going to take more than 30 seconds,” Cheney began.
“Well, that’s all you’ve got,” Ifill told Cheney matter of factly.
When she went on to ask a question about the rate of AIDS deaths among Black women in America, neither candidate could respond. Ifill always dug deep when it came to her line of questioning.
She covered a total of seven presidential campaigns throughout her career. In 2016, she moderated a presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Ifill loved a good, old-fashioned “shoe leather” print reporting more than she did being a news anchor. Although she was gifted at both, she was inspired most by hearing people’s personal stories.
“I loved covering presidential politics, not so much because of the candidates, but because of the people it allowed me to talk to,” she said.
Ifill was a true innovator when it came to reporting across many platforms.
“Gwen was a multimedia journalist before there was even a name for it, “observed NABJ president Sarah Glover.
The challenges facing all journalists in Trump’s America — one in which facts are relative, and the mainstream press vilified — will be massive, but those facing Black journalists and the Black press are exponentially problematic, given their existing struggles in an industry that is growing more monochromatic by the hour. It is a time for focus, courage, and determination.
“We need folks [Black journalists and media professionals] to step up,” Glover said. “We who were mentees must become the mentors. We must not only step up because of the circumstances, but because we have to. The NABJ tenets enough should be motivation alone to speak up in newsrooms, in hiring decisions and more. This is a group effort.”