By: Dave Astor
Four female opinion writers were discussing their craft during a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference (NSNC) session here Friday when the inevitable question was raised by an audience member: What about Ann Coulter?
“She knows how to market a book,” Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi said of the writer who has parlayed anti-liberal insults (including jokes about killing people) into best-selling authordom.
“Ann Coulter is not a columnist. She’s an entertainer,” added Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley.
“The cheapest way to write is to name-call,” said New York Times editorial writer Maura Casey, also noting that some of Coulter’s commentary is “beyond uncivilized. It’s just mean.”
“If the stereotype of women columnists is that they can’t ‘slice and dice,’ Ann Coulter gives the lie to that,” added another panelist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor/columnist Cynthia Tucker, in a statement Tucker said she was making in a “devil’s advocate” way. Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize finalist who, like Coulter, is syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate.
Part of the NSNC panel discussion focused on why there aren’t more female Op-Ed columnists, and the stereotype Tucker referred to was one of the alleged reasons raised. There’s also the fact that some male editors and readers don’t want to see strong commentary from women. “Some people like opinionated women, but an awful lot of people don’t,” Tucker said.
As editorial page editor of the Journal-Constitution, Tucker tries to publish a variety of female and African-American voices (including conservatives). But that doesn’t mean women and black writers always have to focus on so-called women and black issues; panelists said these writers have the right to comment on anything white-male columnists do.
Riley, for instance, periodically writes about her daughter — and says an occasional personal column helps build a rapport with readers that might make them more receptive to a column on, say, the Iraq War. “It’s vital for readers to get a sense of who you are,” said Riley. And personal columns often generate the most mail.
The panelists also discussed the hate mail they receive. “If it says ‘hey stupid’ in the subject line, I don’t read the rest,” said Vennochi. “I know it’s not going to get any better!”
Riley said she’s working on a book about hate mail that various columnists have received.
The four panelists also discussed how they got into opinion writing.
Riley was working as a deputy managing editor at The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., in the mid-1990s when the single mother became dismayed at how little time she was able to spend with her daughter. So she asked if she could do a column. “I got my column by being a better mom,” she recalled.
Casey said she tried to get into the opinion side of newspapers right out of college, and managed to become editorial page editor of a Massachusetts paper in the 1980s at age 25.
Tucker wasn’t thinking of the opinion page as a career choice when she saw, while growing up, that it was full of white men. She worked as a staff reporter and then an Africa-based freelance foreign correspondent before finding herself without a job when returning to the United States. Then she got the offer to join the editorial section of what is now the Journal-Constitution.
Vennochi covered politics before having a child, and then returned to work on the Globe business pages. A column spot opened up on those pages, and Vennochi began a feature about the intersection of business and politics. She moved to the Op-Ed page in the late 1990s.
The panelists were introduced by self-syndicated columnist Terry Marotta, one of the co-chairs of the NSNC conference.