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DG MARTIN COLUMN: Our most popular columnist

Who is North Carolina’s most popular weekly newspaper columnist?

Maybe John Hood, Tom Campbell, Gary Pearce or someone else who regularly brings a special message that helps us understand government and politics.

D.G. Martin

Or perhaps someone like Bill Thompson in Whiteville or Steve Bouser in Southern Pines who regularly entertain readers and provide much appreciated guidance.

There are lots of good choices, but my favorite North Carolina columnist is Barry Saunders, who for 24 years entertained and informed readers of the News & Observer.

Why has he been so popular? One reason is that he pokes fun at himself over and over again. Thus when he skewers politicians and rich and famous people, you can laugh, knowing that Saunders does not mean his attacks personally. In fact, he welcomes and celebrates with humor the voluminous criticisms he gets from those who disagree.

One of Saunders’ favorite people is former Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer, whom he attacked regularly and mercilessly. Why does he like Fetzer, notwithstanding their political differences?

“Fetzer never held it against me,” Saunders says, pointing out that whenever he ran into Fetzer after he had attacked him, Fetzer was gracious and friendly.

Like Saunders I do not agree with Fetzer’s politics, but I admire his willingness and ability to laugh at and with his attacker.

And I admire Saunders for cultivating that kind of relationship with those who are “on the other side.”

Saunders is Black, but he skewered prima donnas of all colors.

Saunders’ columns were so popular that some people bought the paper just to read his provocative commentary. In that respect he was like the comic strip “Peanuts” or the crossword puzzle. People opened the paper just to read them. A newspaper editor who omitted them was risking losing a subscriber.

The N&O published two books of his columns, “Do Unto Others … and Then Run” and “And the Horse You Rode In On, Saunders!”

All that made it hard to believe when the N&O discontinued Saunders’ column in 2017 as part of the severe cutbacks it made to try to balance its books in very challenging economic times.

Still the N&O knew the risk it was taking. The paper’s executive editor John Drescher wrote, “For more than two decades, Barry Saunders has been one of the Triangle’s leading voices. He’s been courageous, he’s been insightful, he’s been funny. Barry’s deep roots in North Carolina clearly influenced his work and helped make him a must-read for many of our readers.”

The article announcing Saunders’ departure acknowledged his special value: “Often, Saunders’ topics were serious ones, and his commentary was pointed – decrying neighborhood crime, calling out racism or taking public officials to task when they needed it.”

In a recent conversation with Saunders, I tried to get him to explain what makes a good column. Is it surprise and humor combined with a serious message? He dodged the question, but he shared this: “I know I have a good column when I can write it quickly. But if I have to struggle with it, write and rewrite, and start all over again, I know it’s best to trash it and write about something else.”

In that respect, he explained, it is like a poem or a song. The best ones come smoothly when already you know what you want to say and there is a moment of inspiration that opens door to writing it down.

The best news is that Saunders is back writing for the N&O, Durham Herald-Sun and The Charlotte Observer.

So, you ask, “What good is that for me? I don’t read those papers.”

First of all, you can find his columns on the web at www.thesaundersreport.com.

Also, you can know that this columnist is doing his best to learn from Saunders how to do a better job so you will enjoy reading this column even more.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.