Mary C. Curtis on Column-Writing in a Polarized Time

By Dave Astor
NSNC Archivist

When Mary C. Curtis speaks at our Buffalo conference on June 22, she plans to discuss how opinion writers can approach sensitive issues – and deal with the reader reaction that follows.

Ms. Curtis is the perfect person to talk about that, because her Roll Call column and other media work often focus on “the intersection of politics, culture, and race,” as Mary described it in a March 15 phone interview. Those three topics can be fraught in any era, but are especially so in this polarized time of Trump.

Actually, Ms. Curtis said the response she gets to her writing is mostly positive, and she attributes this to several factors. “I try to put a lot of reporting in my column,” noted Mary, which makes it harder for spoiling-for-a fight readers to refute her points. “And I use humor when I can, and pop-culture references – including music and movie metaphors. Many readers can relate to that.”

One Curtis column referencing a movie was her March 14 one that mentioned the classic film Gaslight while making this deadly serious point: “America is being ‘gaslighted.’ How else could it maintain an unshaken belief in the ‘American dream,’ that if you work long enough and hard enough, you can achieve anything? In order to believe in the triumph of a meritocracy, a country with an even playing field, you must ignore the lobbyists, PR specialists, and boatloads of money that smooth out any rocky road for a select few. And your mind must obliterate every bit of this country’s history.”

Some of that history, Ms. Curtis said in the interview, includes many black World War II veterans not receiving G.I. Bill benefits, and home-loan discrimination and restrictive covenants that prevented many African-Americans from buying houses where they wanted – and thus made it harder for them to build home-equity wealth. And we’ve of course seen the college-admission shenanigans that, for example, got mediocre student/now-Trump-son-in-law Jared Kushner into Harvard only after his wealthy father pledged $2.5 million to the university.

Mary, who has covered three presidential campaigns, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2006.

Getting back to column reaction, Ms. Curtis said positive response not only comes from readers in general but from friends, family, and colleagues who see her work via social media – including members of the NSNC (that’s us!), the National Association of Black Journalists, and the Journalism and Women Symposium.

But the longtime NSNC member also gets a not-insignificant amount of negative pushback, including threats of harm and vicious language such as the “n-word.”

“It’s not pleasant being called names” – whether that anger stems from racism, sexism, or both, said Ms. Curtis, who added that some close-minded readers “just see a photo of an African-American woman and then don’t read a word I wrote… It’s easy to demonize people when you don’t know them personally.”

But Ms. Curtis strives to shrug it off as much as she can, figuring the nastier critics are probably unhappy with their lives and thus “mad at the world.” And she said some people who don’t like what she writes might end up at least thinking more about certain issues.

It was in 2016 when Mary began her column for Roll Call – the Washington, DC, print publication (it also has an online component) with a readership that includes U.S. Senators and House members. The multi-award-winning journalist – who worked as an editor at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, The Arizona Daily Star, the Associated Press, and elsewhere – has also been a columnist for, or a freelance contributor to, many other media outlets during her career.

Ms. Curtis – who grew up in a working-class Baltimore family and now lives in Charlotte – also appears regularly on WCCB-TV’s “Rising Charlotte” news-discussion program and National Public Radio, is writing a “social history and memoir” (her first book after contributing chapters to other books), and is a senior leader with the OpEd Project that works to bring more women and people of color to the commentary world.

“If we don’t tell our own story, someone else will – and they may get it wrong,” she said.

Mary’s talk in Buffalo this June will be her first solo speaking appearance at an NSNC conference after being on panels during our 2014 and 2011 meetings in Washington and Detroit.

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Dave Astor writes the weekly “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, blogs weekly at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of “Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.”

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  2 comments for “Mary C. Curtis on Column-Writing in a Polarized Time

  1. Jan Paschal
    April 3, 2019 at 8:06 am

    Excellent profile of a brilliant columnist! Mary C. Curtis takes on the toughest subjects in a way that combines the best reporting and teaching with the art of lively conversation. She leaves the reader wanting more. Dave Astor, you’ve given us the insights into how she does this – and you’ve made us want to know more! Kudos to you, Dave Astor, and to your subject, Mary C. Curtis!

    • April 5, 2019 at 1:03 pm

      Jan, thanks so much for your eloquent comment and very kind words! I share your admiration of Mary and her great work. 🙂

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