A couple of months ago, Mary Katharine Ham started getting calls from producers at Fox News and Larry King Live, inviting her to represent the right-wing point of view on the air. Ham, who grew up in Durham and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, is a full-time blogger at TownHall.com, a conservative multimedia Web site, where she has worked since 2005 (www.townhall.com/blog/MaryKatharineHam). In the run-up to this year's election, she also gained notoriety for her video blog entries, including a Republican Get-Out-the-Vote campaign ad done as a spoof of late-night phone-dating ads.
In her early 20s, with long brown hair and a broad smile, Ham is a rising media star. On election night, she was among some 30 keyboard scribblers invited to CNN's "blog party" at a Washington nightspot. (She was joined there by fellow Durhamite Pam Spaulding, whose Pam's House Blend blog addresses race and gay and lesbian issues from a decidedly liberal perspective—though neither was aware they shared a hometown.)
Ham occasionally relates anecdotes of her experiences in Durham, which she describes as a liberal college town where she frequently finds herself the only conservative in the room (or at the bar). After attending Riverside High School and the University of Georgia and working at a small-town N.C. newspaper, she joined the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. Her father, Jon Ham, the former managing editor of The Herald-Sun, is now a vice president at the conservative John Locke Foundation, where he writes a column for Carolina Journal.
We spoke with Ham by phone and e-mail from her office.
Indy: Besides blogging for Town Hall, you've recently become a bit of a TV personality. How did that happen?
Mary Katharine Ham: [Prominent conservative blogger] Michele Malkin has been very kind to me and sort of promoted me and been someone to look to for advice. I guest-blogged for her and shot a couple of video blogs for her site. She's on a couple of shows, and I had another friend who's been on CNN for a while, and both of them ended up not being able to do various gigs and they recommended me.
You started your career at a newspaper in North Carolina, is that right?
Yes, I worked for the newspaper in Rockingham. Because it was a small paper, I did pretty much everything: I laid stuff out and I reported, mostly sports and features, and then I got to do a little bit of opinion. They needed the columns filled and they were very nice to let me give it a shot even though I was right out of school. A couple of opinion pieces got picked up online by bigger Web sites, so I thought, maybe I could take a shot at that.
What were they about?
The first one was a column in which I defended Rush Limbaugh for the Donovan McNabb dustup. [In 2003, Limbaugh resigned from ESPN after saying the Philadelphia Eagles player had been promoted because he's black.] So few writers took that tack that [Limbaugh] put all of them on his Web site, every column that defended him. And my line was, basically, the media likes to call out racial insensitivity, but usually only on one side. You've got [Chicago Cubs manager] Dusty Baker going on and on about how white boys can't play in the heat, and that's fine, but if you're Rush Limbaugh you're going to get crucified. So basically I was saying, if you're going to call it, call it both ways.
How did you end up at the Heritage Foundation?
I was looking around at different newspaper jobs and I decided I could either do opinion journalism or sports journalism. I thought that was where I'd be most comfortable in the newsroom. I went up to D.C., interviewed at The Washington Times and the Heritage Foundation. At the Heritage Foundation, everybody was really excited and pumped about what they were doing. I had never met so many like-minded people in my entire life, so that was kind of exciting.
You say that your experience of Durham is that it's a very liberal town. That's interesting because my experience is that it's a very mixed town, politically.
I grew up in Trinity Park, which has a lot to do with it. I grew up in the Duke professor community, which, especially in my neighborhood, is overwhelmingly liberal. If you go to certain parts of town, certainly things are different. But my impression has always been that the conservatives, if they're in Durham, are certainly the silent minority.
What formed your political philosophy?
Our family was a bit more conservative than the folks in our neighborhood were, but we were never overtly politically conservative until later in the Clinton years.
I'm more of a fiscal conservative. I grew up in public schools, largely minority public schools—I was always one of several white kids from the neighborhood. And I just noticed in those settings that—and it took me a long time to figure out what was going on—that federal programs for fixing problems such as poverty and social ills and these kind of things were not working exactly the way they were supposed to. Not only that, but they looked to me as if they were harming the people they were meant to help.
In what way?
Just sort of breeding a kind of dependence on government, it occurred to me somewhere around high school, was not a good idea because you want people to have more potential than that. You always want to give people a helping hand, which is why I support private charities, which I think are more efficient at actually helping people than the government is.
And you observed this in your classmates?
Right. I watched families that had come undone and kids that weren't getting support at home, and it occurred to me later that a lot of that could probably be attributed to the fact that many of them were dependent on government instead of their families making their own way and taking ownership of their own lives.
What other experiences formed your political views?
I'm strongly pro-gun. The idea of gun control never made sense to me, since it only leaves law-abiding citizens without the means to protect themselves while all the criminals persist in owning illegal guns. It's also a bit of a women's issue for me. There is no better way to equalize a fight between a male attacker and a woman than a 9mm. Armed citizens who know what they're doing with a firearm can be a great crime deterrent.
Violence against women is a huge problem, and one I've been concerned about since the days of the Trinity Park rapist. I just take a different tack than liberals when it comes to deciding how to defend women. I occasionally collect news stories into columns about everyday women—grandmothers, moms, sisters—protecting themselves and their families with their guns. I think they're inspirational.
As far as other things that I'm passionate about, my father served in the military and both my grandfathers did, and that's always been something that we're very proud of. Not to say that that's only a conservative thing, but growing up in Durham that was always something I was sort of outspoken about.
I'm a Christian, so I'm a social conservative, but I'm much more focused on fiscal issues.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist in that I want an equal playing field and equal rights with men. I have been discouraged by the modern feminist movement's tendency to campaign for "special" rights and extra help for women through government programs. It seems to me the opposite of empowering to tell women they need a particular political party or government program to succeed instead of encouraging them to create wealth and opportunity on their own, when they're perfectly capable of doing so.
Every time I tell a modern feminist—and I know many of them—that I'm a conservative or a Republican, I get the same response: "But, but, you're a woman. How can you be a woman and a conservative?" This is usually just a proxy for asking me how I can side with the generally recognized pro-life party. Well, thank you very much, but my entire political philosophy is not defined by the issue of abortion, and I think it's rather sad that many of my fellow women assume it should be. How myopic is that?
For most of your childhood your father worked at The Herald-Sun. Did that put stars in your eyes about media?
Starting in my early teenage years, my dad would take me to the courthouse on election night. Frankly, at the time I probably didn't even know what people were voting for. But it was very exciting. A newsroom on election night is one of the coolest places to be. I got really into that, the late-night pizza, everybody working on a deadline. That struck me as cool. And I've always been able to do very little other than write. [Laughs]
You really felt like newspapers were too liberal? Or you felt that you were too opinionated not to have it be part of your work?
Even in the very little exposure I had to the newsroom, it was overwhelmingly liberal. I was always having to, instead of writing my story, which had nothing to do with politics at all, I'd be defending my beliefs to editors who were having a political conversation in the room. Since I was the only conservative there, I would speak up and say, this is what I think and this is the other view on this. It just became this constant battle. I was always having to worry about, are they going to ask me to do some story that I feel like is slanted in such-and-such a way?
Did you ever feel that you were asked to do a story that was slanted?
Yeah. At one point, there was a Wal-Mart coming to the town, and everyone was very excited about it because it was going to be the coolest thing to hit Rockingham in quite some time. And we were going to do this exposé series on how horrible Wal-Mart was, with very little balance on how it was going to bring millions of dollars to the county and all of these goods and products that people could buy. It worked out fine, but that was one of those situations where I was like, I think I'm going to run into this a lot.
What is it like to be a public face representing conservative views?
It's very odd. I didn't imagine I'd be doing this. It's certainly fun. What I've actually been struck by is how little you get to say on TV. I'm used to an unlimited medium—I write on the Internet, so I can write forever. On TV, you just have to be on your toes, very succinct.
I've been very lucky to get to do a job that's a ton of fun and fight for things I believe in every day. Not a bad position to be in, whether you're liberal or conservative.