Cynthia Tucker Reflects On Opinion Journalism

After more than 20 years as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pulitzer Prize-winner Cynthia Tucker left to become a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She edited the editorial page for the paper for eight years until she was reassigned as a political columnist.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

For over 20 years, Cynthia Tucker's columns have captivated and, at times, infuriated readers across the country. In 2007, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her clear-headed and courageous commentary. She made headlines in 2009 when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution transferred her to Washington and removed her from its editorial board. Critics said this changed the paper's longstanding editorial outlook. It's one of many changes and challenges she's faced in opinion journalism. Cynthia Tucker joins us in a moment.

Why do you read op-eds? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, or join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Cynthia Tucker joins us now from a studio in Atlanta. Welcome back to the program, and congrats on your position at the University of Georgia.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: You were a columnist for more than two decades. What about the job changed over that time?

TUCKER: Well, Jennifer, as you know, newspapers have changed over that time. When I entered the business way back in - I won't say when...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: ...newspapers were still delivered to the doorsteps of most Americans. While many Americans certainly got their news from television and radio, newspapers were still the dominant source of news for the vast majority of voters. And that has changed significantly over my career. But there were also a couple of changes that I think of as more positive in newspapers during my career. When I entered the business, there were very few women in high-ranking positions.

In the newspaper industry, it had been a profession that had always been dominated by men, and was still so when I joined my first newsroom. And there were very few black professionals in newsrooms, particularly Southern newsrooms, when I started at The Atlanta Journal. And over the course of my career, that also changed. Now, most journalism professors will tell you that most of their classes are made up of women.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm. Well, as are many - most college grads these days are women, I guess.

TUCKER: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: So particularly in the field of journalism, they see this?

TUCKER: They see this in journalism, and women have moved up into pivotal roles in newsrooms, broadcast and print. There are managing editors, editors and publishers of newspapers throughout the country. Black professionals have also moved up into pivotal roles. The New York Times named its very first woman editor, Jill Abramson, just a few months ago. So while newspapers have lost their dominant position as the way most voters get their news, the flipside has been that there has been some real progress in terms of diversity in newspaper newsrooms over those years.

LUDDEN: And do you think that, then, this is changing maybe the breadth or tone of things we read on the op-ed page? Can someone open an op-ed page today and see a topic they just may not have seen 20 years ago?

TUCKER: Oh, yes. One of the things that absolutely delighted me over the course of my career was seeing that, again, the addition of women to newsrooms and the addition of black professionals meant that things that had not been considered news, say, in 1950 or 1960, were considered not only important enough to put it in the news pages, but important enough and interesting enough to talk about on the op-ed pages. One of the...

LUDDEN: Does an example come to mind?

TUCKER: Yes, indeed. Education issues, child-rearing and parenting issues, columns about how to balance workplace and family have all been talked about on op-ed pages over the last 15 years.

In fact, I would argue that now most readers don't think that it's odd to see a piece on the op-ed page about a confrontation that a parent might have had with her child's teacher, or how I have - how best to deal with bullying in schools. 30 years ago, you never saw pieces about bullying in schools. And bullying, believe me, is not knew...

LUDDEN: Hmm. That is true.

TUCKER: ...but now you do. And now, readers don't even find it odd to encounter those topics on op-ed pages. And I think that's a wonderful change.

LUDDEN: Really interesting. OK. Let's get a call on the line here. Denise(ph) is in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Hi, Denise.

DENISE: Hi. Good afternoon. I read the op-ed pages pretty religiously. I think they help me articulate how I feel. I'm not a professional writer, and I really feel that I get more depth and understanding by reading things in a little longer format. I know that some people think that newspapers, particularly, are not - are kind of going the way of the dinosaur, but I don't think that's ever going to be true completely because we get so much more depth from a longer piece. And it helps me articulate my opinions better when I'm better informed.

LUDDEN: Thanks for the call.

TUCKER: I'm delighted to hear that.

LUDDEN: So, Cynthia, is that what's part of your job, is to tap into something that people may already feel, just haven't articulated?

TUCKER: Well, the good, persuasive writer is certainly tapping into a subject that interests people, and it may be a subject that many readers haven't thought about. But you want to write about it in a way that grabs their attention, interests them. And if you're, again, a good, persuasive writer, you want to encourage them to at least think about the subject from your point of view.

Now, over the decades, I was lucky enough to have a lot of loyal readers who would come up to me in the grocery store or at church or send me letters or email that said, that's exactly what I think. I'm so glad you said that. And that's really wonderful. I don't think you'll ever meet a columnist who will tell you that he or she doesn't enjoy getting that kind of email. But I also enjoy getting email or letters or phone calls from readers who said, you know, I enjoy writing your - reading your columns even though I rarely agree with you. You force me to think about an issue a little bit differently. You argue your point of view well. And I enjoyed hearing those comments too.

LUDDEN: I think this caller might have something to add there. Richard is in Wichita, Kansas.

RICHARD: Yes. Ms. Tucker, I've been fan for many years.

TUCKER: Well, thank you.

RICHARD: Back when you first started appearing on TV, I was always very impressed with your what were at that time seemed like center-left and very astute analyses of the complex factors feeding into social and political issues. And I noticed over time that it seemed like you, and for that matter the rest of the writers in op-ed, seem to drift off into hardened position, one side of the other, of the political spectrum. I mean, you seemed to have gone kind of into the far left, and you seemed to drift from analysis into moralizing. And I've seen that throughout the editorial pages. I wonder if you could explain what happened to the old careful, analytical stuff that I really used to get into that would analyze stuff, and whether or not you see this as a reflection of an electorate that is less and less educated because of the players, the educational system in the '60s and '70s and '80s.

LUDDEN: Wow. A lot of issues there. Richard, thank you.

TUCKER: I'm telling you, that's a tightly packed question. I can only respond about my own points of view, which I don't think my politics or ideology have changed over the last 25 years or so. That is not to say that my points of view on particular issues haven't changed. I have certainly changed my mind about some things, but I was center-left in 1985. I was center-left in 2005. And I'm center-left today.

I think that if it - part of what - is it Richard - part of what Richard may have been responding to is seeing and hearing me in different forums. I try to be very thoughtful and analytical when I'm writing in newspaper column. When I'm on TALK OF THE NATION, I try to be very thoughtful or analytical. But I will admit that when I have appeared on television shows, where you don't have a lot of time to articulate a point of view, those cable shows that can be a little more like food fights, I often...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: ...perhaps I seemed a little more strident because you only have time to get one or two sentences in, and those are not the formats that necessarily lend themselves to reasoned opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: All right. There's an honest answer. Richard, thanks for the call.

RICHARD: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Let's get another one in here. Ruth is in Marietta, Ohio. Hi there.

RUTH: Hi. My acquaintance with Cynthia Tucker is only over public television when she appeared as a guest editor, and I loved her. I never had the privilege of reading anything she wrote. But the reason I called is to thank her for being herself. My husband was very old school. The smart people were the men. The smart people were the white people. And Cynthia Tucker was neither, and he thought she was brilliant.

LUDDEN: Oh, that's a nice comment.

TUCKER: Oh, that's wonderful compliment.

LUDDEN: Ruth, thank you for sharing that.

TUCKER: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Another question. Now we have Jeff(ph) in Sioux City, Iowa. Hi there.

JEFF: Hi. I - my question is, I don't understand why any newspaper would pay an editorial writer for their opinions when they can get all the opinions they want from their subscribers for free.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JEFF: My local newspaper paid editorials are so bias that I actually ended my subscription.

LUDDEN: All right. Cynthia?

TUCKER: Oh, my goodness gracious. I would like to think as a journalist of some 30 years standing that I bring some knowledge to the craft that the average reader doesn't bring. I am better informed about many issues, not because I'm smarter than the average reader, but because I have had the luxury of being paid to be better informed about many issues.

The good opinion writer is a reporter first. I spent my earliest years in this business as a reporter. When I was transferred to Washington a couple of years ago, I had time to cover Congress, cover the agencies up close. And much of my time was spent in reporting, and so I ought to know something about the subject about which I'm writing that the average reader doesn't because he or she doesn't have time to do the reporting that I've done.

LUDDEN: Jeff, are you convinced?

JEFF: No. I understand her point of view. However, for every point of view, there's always an opposite point of view, and it is...

LUDDEN: But what about the value of informed point of view, someone who's, you know, made the rounds and followed people?

JEFF: I understand. I'm not really - I'm not in - I'm not disagreeing with the professional editorial writer. I'm disagreeing with the local newspaper, which does not also publish the other side of the view.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks so much for sharing, Jeff.

JEFF: OK. Thank you.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get one more call in here, Gary(ph) in Marble, Minnesota. Hi there.

GARY: Afternoon. I grew up in northern Minnesota, fairly isolated. I never saw a black person until I was 16 years of age, and then I was in the hospital, you know, having a surgery done. And I consider Ellen Goodman and Sydney Harris to be a couple of my mentors because - as well as other op-ed people. But they brought in information to me which I would never have gotten from my local paper. And I'm just curious as to what or who your guest considers her mentors.

LUDDEN: Nice question. Gary, thanks for calling. Cynthia Tucker, who are your mentors?

TUCKER: Well, I am a huge fan of Ellen Goodman, and I considered her a mentor from afar. Ellen was one of the women - one of the earliest women to have success as a syndicated newspaper columnist, and she was one of those who helped bring to the op-ed pages topics that had been off limits before. She talked about women's issues a lot. She talked about employment discrimination, sexism. And it was very encouraging to see a woman out there writing about those issues, writing about them forcefully and well. I met Ellen and she was always personally encouraging of me in my career.

If I go back further, though, to think about - I've had the privileged of knowing a lot of good reporters and good opinion writers who were very encouraging of me in my career, including Bill Raspberry who work for the Washington Post and was syndicated a long time and is now retired. So I've been lucky to have met some of the best and have them give me a pat on the back from time to time.

LUDDEN: We have just a moment left. Do you have any advise for aspiring, or now that we are in the era of the blogosphere, amateur op-ed writers?

TUCKER: Absolutely. I'm - that's about - the career I'm about to embark upon is to give that advice in the classroom. And I think that there are some fundamentals that apply no matter what the medium is. I believe that those fundamentals apply to TV, radio, print, websites, and one of those is get your facts right, understand the difference between fact and opinion, make sure that your opinion is informed opinion, based on well-reported facts.

LUDDEN: All right. Cynthia Tucker spent two decades as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. There's her last column on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Cynthia, thank you so much.

TUCKER: Thank you, Jennifer. And I'm still syndicated in several newspapers around the country.

LUDDEN: All right. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow looks at the power of the placebo. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

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