Vol. 1: Mary C. Curtis Writes Because the Problem is Not "Fake News"
In the lead up to last year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, we produced a series that explored the experience of working in a dominantly white industry as a person of color. This year, we're kicking off the #Muse17 conversation with another timely topic. In the face of a challenging political climate and amid reports that the NEA and other cultural programs face significant spending cuts, we asked authors, agents, and editors presenting at the conference: What is a writer for? Why is now an important time to advocate for the writer's -- and literature's -- role in society? This first installment comes from political columnist Mary C. Curtis, who will be leading a Muse session on Getting Noticed, Read, and Understood on Sensitive Topics.
Writing, today, seems different, especially when you write and report on issues of politics, culture, and race, as I do. Growing up, journalism as a profession had always felt a little sketchy to me—and not just because my mother thought doctor or lawyer seemed a lot surer a bet for an African-American girl raised in West Baltimore, trying to make something of herself. It was also because the job of observing the world to make sense of it seemed not to fit the description of “job” I grew up on.
But the hours (irregular) suited me, and the chance to learn a little about the things I read in that library at Pennsylvania and North Avenues (a corner made famous when Freddie Gray died and a CVS burned) intrigued me. And when this reader saw her neighborhood and neighbors defined as a place and people she did not recognize in daily papers and TV news shows, she knew the work was important.
I eventually found that sweet spot, reporting on the intersection of the things I loved—how politics often resembled classic art and literature, how a candidate debate was truly theater, complete with exaggeration and insult, heroes and villains, how the dark and complicated history of race in America infected everything, despite all attempts at collective amnesia on what occurred the day before yesterday.
However, my work was also a job, and I made a good if not luxurious living.
In 2017, at this moment in American and world history, though, the writing seems essential. I have never been more proud of the profession or more wary or on edge. That I believe a free press is the cornerstone of a democracy has always been more idealistic than self-serving. I find myself repeating it more and more, as US leaders label the media “enemies of the people.”
In a column in Roll Call, I write about a February trip to South Africa, where I worked with leaders and activists from throughout the world, many from countries on the African continent. Leading The Op-Ed Project’s “Write to Change the World” seminar for Aspen New Voices fellows was a reminder of how much is at stake—how much the problem is not “fake news” but not enough news. We need to know more about the world and how we are all connected.
These leaders are sometimes risking more than an angry Tweet. But their work—on inspiring youth in marginalized communities, creating health-care innovations, encouraging government accountability and more—is important enough that they want to share it, so others can understand, learn, and come to solutions.
It makes you think long and hard about why we do what we do and how best to do it.
It makes you understand, a little, about what a writer is for.
Mary C. Curtis, political columnist at Roll Call and NBCBLK, is an award-winning journalist and educator based in Charlotte, N.C. She has contributed to NBC News, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Root, MSNBC, and talks politics on WCCB-TV in Charlotte. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, the Baltimore Sun, and the Associated Press and as national correspondent for AOL's Politics Daily. Her coverage specialty is the intersection of politics, culture and race, and she has covered the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. Curtis is a Senior Leader with The OpEd Project, at Yale University, Cornell University, and the Ford Foundation and at the Aspen New Voices Fellowship in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a Kiplinger Fellow, in social media, at Ohio State. Her honors include Clarion Awards from the Association for Women in Communications, three first-place awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, and the Thomas Wolfe Award for an examination of Confederate heritage groups. Curtis has contributed to several books, including an essay in “Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox.” You can find her work at www.maryccurtis.com and follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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