Q&A: Elizabeth Colton on life abroad, diplomacy and journalism

WHERE IN THE WORLD?: Asheville native Elizabeth Colton lived in 13 — and worked in 120 — countries during her career in journalism and diplomacy. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

Growing up in Asheville nurtured Elizabeth Colton’s desire to travel. And she has Warren Wilson College, in part, to thank for it. Throughout her youth, Colton’s parents invited international students studying at the college to their home during holidays. In meeting these travelers, the young Colton knew she wanted to explore the world for herself.

Now, Colton might be the most well-traveled person in Asheville: She’s lived in 13 — and worked in 120 — countries. At one point, she held three passports, courtesy of her career as a journalist and a diplomat with the U.N. General Assembly and the U.S. Foreign Service.

Among her many other professional accomplishments, Colton has worked as a diplomatic correspondent for NPR, covered world news for ABC and NBC, won an Emmy Award for her 1982 “ABC Nightly News” reporting on Libya and co-authored a book, Connecting to Creativity: Ten Keys to Unlocking Your Creative Potential .

Currently, Colton is Warren Wilson’s diplomat- and journalist-in-residence. “I don’t have a lot of money to give to somewhere,” she explains. “What I have is myself.”

Xpress recently spoke with Colton about the advice she offers young journalists, her belief in reading the news from multiple outlets and how women’s rights have changed since her childhood in Asheville.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

So tell me what a journalist-in-residence does. 

I’ve been speaking in different classes and I’ve started mentoring students, not just for diplomacy or journalism. What I would like to do is have forums. But because of the pandemic, nothing like that has quite happened.

What’s some of the advice you dole out to Warren Wilson students?

I actually tell people, don’t let your parents tell you that you can’t major in English. Because in reality, to be able to write well [means] you can get a job in anything. But a lot of people don’t know this. …  I’ve been helping the people at the [student] newspaper, and I say, “You can major in anything and be a journalist.” To be a journalist is to be curious and also to be able to jump from different kinds of things.

And this is true in diplomacy as well. … You can be a math major, history [major], political science [major]. People think, “Oh, I have to major in international relations.” I’ve never had a course in international [relations].

Where did your interest in journalism come from?

Starting when I was 8, I had my first newspaper that I wrote out and carbon copied and delivered early morning around the Montford neighborhood. … This is all in the middle ’50s. When I was 9, I had three papers: one at the school [and one] that I delivered around the neighborhood. And then I had an international paper.

Fortunately, my parents didn’t ever tell me, “Well, girls can’t do this.”

I read about [World War II journalist] Ernie Pyle. I wanted to be a war correspondent. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. …  I always had these dreams. I wanted to work at the U.N. And then when [President John F.] Kennedy announced the Peace Corps, I immediately thought, “I have to do that.”

Journalism has changed a lot throughout your career. Media coverage can seem more partisan, and people will read things that confirm what they already believe. What do you think about the state of media literacy today?

The question people always ask me is, “What is your one source?” I say, “I have no one source.” I’m reading fanatically all the time. … The editorial pages are one thing, and then news reporting should be another. And I tell people, “Look, The Wall Street Journal news reporting is some of the best in the world.” … I have friends on the left who say, “I wouldn’t even look at The Wall Street Journal!” I say, “What do you mean?” I want to know what they’re thinking, so I read their editorials and I read their columns.

Let’s talk about growing up in Asheville. What were the schools like in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

It was segregated then. I can remember when the Brown v. Board of Education [Supreme Court decision] was announced in 1954. I was in the third grade. I came home and I told Mother that we had discussed it in my school classroom that day. And Mother said, “What did you say?” I said, “I thought it was very good, because it’ll make us be the kind of country that we’re supposed to be with equality for everybody.”

[The Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County President] Oralene Simmons, [Buncombe County Commissioner] Al Whitesides and I were all in the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality to promote integration. … A big thing that we worked on was integrating the library.

Gender roles were different for girls and women when you were younger, too.

The truth is the discrimination against females was pretty awful — it was total. In 1975, when I was 30 years old, I got my first credit card. There was a bank that opened in New York City, and if [a woman] could put in $2,000, you would get your first credit card. … When I tell people that, they can’t imagine.

What do you think about the current state of democracy and the role the local and national press play in it? 

The national and the local press have an extremely important role in supporting, maintaining and building our democracy and all of our freedoms. I personally do a great deal of work promoting press freedom internationally as chair of the board of [Directors of] Reporters Without Borders USA. … It’s a two-way street. It’s important journalists maintain higher standards, and there’s training for journalists to realize the important role they have.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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