Sheryl McCarthy

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Not only might Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy rain on someone’s parade, she could help stop one.

When Mike Tyson was to be released in 1995 after serving a jail sentence for raping a black woman there were press reports that Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent New York Democrat and leading African American spokesperson, was planning a welcome home parade for the heavyweight prize-fighter Tyson in Harlem.

“I was furious. A black woman was raped by a black man and they wanted to give him a parade?” Almost a decade later, McCarthy’s voice still rises at the idea of it. “There is sexism in the black community. Some leaders are so upset when harm is done to a black by someone who is white, but black on black is okay, especially if you’re a male celebrity?”

McCarthy poured her outrage into a column, which inspired another writer to start a campaign protesting the parade. As the community pressure built, the parade plans fizzled.

A champion for women, African Americans, the poor, the misunderstood, McCarthy does not shy from conflict or controversy, whether she’s writing on gender, race, politics, foreign policy, or as she says, “anything that presses my button, makes me angry, sad, is really stupid, needs to change, or I feel the real point must be shown.”

Unequivocal on Abortion Rights

In her first column for Newsday, McCarthy stood up for abortion rights and she has been staunchly defending of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guarantees legal abortion, ever since.

“One of a woman’s most important rights is to be able to control her own reproductive system,” says McCarthy, who has since written many columns on abortion rights. “I don’t equivocate on abortion or make apologies for the way I feel.”

McCarthy has repeatedly written about the need to make emergency contraception available over the counter, especially for girls under 16, who need it more than anyone else.

“As a journalist, who is also black and woman, I am supremely glad that Sheryl defies the cliche,” says Newsday colleague Katti Gray. “Because she explores so wide a range of topics, no one can peg or pigeonhole her as being overly fixated on black topics or womanist topics alone. Sure, she tackles those issues, deservedly, but also other matters that are edgy, topical, timely and often quite universal in theme.”

Despite her broad scope, McCarthy also manages to be a “sister-girl,” in touch with a black women’s point of view and ready and able to express it. An example was her response to the opening of the Harlem Club, a social club that threw open its doors to educated black men but whose equally educated female applicants were pre-screened by male members who looked over their photographs. With a selection criteria for women that seemed to be about looks, not brains, personality and accomplishment, McCarthy skewered the club as “totally shallow.”

“Sheryl doesn’t mind offending people when it’s appropriate, even someone she might have to socialize with,” says Ron Howell, a former Newsday reporter and current editor of CUNY Matters, a publication for the university’s faculty and staff. “She tells the truth even if it will raise hackles.”

Elevating the Community

“Sheryl elevates her community both by calling readers’ attention to important issues in the world around them and by demonstrating that it’s possible to be a person with intense positions on a great many issues while still maintaining your openness, humanity, dignity and good humor,” says Gail Collins, editorial editor of the New York Times.

“She’s helped a generation of people to think more clearly, more compassionately and more deeply about the state of American society in a way that only the most thoughtful and talented journalist can,” says Bill Kovach, chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a group concerned with standards and ethics in the media, based in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy has won many awards, including the Meyer Berger Award for writing about New York City from Columbia University Journalism School. In 1996 she took a year off to participate in the prestigious Nieman journalism fellowship program at Harvard.

Not bad for a woman who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., “in the bad old days, during the church bombings and the hoses,” says McCarthy. The all-female, largely white college, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., was a change for McCarthy, who got her bachelor of arts in English there. She later earned a master’s in English and a law degree, both from Columbia University.

Her first full-time journalism job was at the Boston Globe. From there, her career included stops at the Baltimore Evening Sun, the New York Daily News, and ABC News, before joining Newsday in 1987 as a senior writer, working on special projects, as well as daily assignments.

When Newsday began looking to hire a second black columnist, McCarthy decided to try her hand at something new. The paper’s lineup at the time included one black columnist, a male, and no female columnists. During a women’s caucus meeting at the paper management expressed its desire for a female columnist but said it was having trouble finding one who was qualified.

McCarthy volunteered. “I said here I am, and I meant it,” she recalls. “It’s not brain surgery. You get a good reporter and give them a chance to write a column. That’s how they got white male columnists.”

Shortly after that, she and another woman became columnists. “I got my column by shooting my lip off at a meeting.”

“I try to be provocative, to be helpful, to illuminate public debate on important issues, to hopefully do some good,” she says.

It hasn’t always been easy. “When I first got the job, blacks wanted me to get on white people and women wanted me to get on men. I just wanted to tell the truth.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, N.Y., specializing in personal finance, general business and small business.

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