It was basketball that took Karen Hinton (’80) to the University of Mississippi.
She played for her high school team in Soso, Miss., traveled to Ole Miss for a summer basketball camp as a junior, and was successful in securing a scholarship to play on the university’s basketball team, which assisted in paying for her first semester.
Choosing a major came next. For Hinton, who had written articles for her high school newspaper, the decision was journalism. It was a very popular major at that time.
“There was a huge surge of students majoring in journalism after the release of the book, ‘All the President’s Men’ in 1974,” Hinton said. “There were a lot of young people who were suddenly very interested in investigative journalism.”
Jere Hoar, attorney at law and professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Mississippi, said Hinton “was an outstanding student in my classes.”
“She was also an idealist who wanted to make the South a better place for everyone and was eager to complete her studies so she could throw herself into the struggle,” Hoar said.
“The Ole Miss campus is featured in history for its involvement in the civil rights movement and incidents on campus,” Hinton said. “I read about what was happening and had happened around the country — and I was standing on top of it.”
The civil rights movement would ultimately captivate her attention for the rest of her time at the university, as well as her career. Hinton found herself searching the university library as well as the Square Books bookstore for books on Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights leaders, namely from Mississippi.
Hinton started working for The Daily Mississippian, eventually starting her own publication — HottyToddy — during her senior year at Ole Miss.
“She knows how to get things done,” said Will Norton, Jr., dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. “She is very smart.”
When a faculty member would give a test with an inaccurate test question, she would tell him. She did a lot of work for The Daily Mississippian and was a very aggressive reporter. She knew how to network and how to make contacts.
“She’s a free spirit — a very disciplined free spirit.”
Hinton graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1980 with a double major in journalism and political science. During her time as a reporter for the Jackson Daily News in the early 1980s, Hinton realized she was interested in advocacy reporting.
“Advocacy journalism is writing about what you believe to be true and believe to be right,” Hinton said. “There should be a place (in journalism) for making your own judgment about a situation and putting it out there.”
Hinton transitioned to working in politics in 1983 as press secretary for congressional campaigns in the Second District of Mississippi. After four years of working in the state, Hinton was hired in 1987 to work in Washington, D.C., as press secretary for Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, the first African-American congressman to be elected from Mississippi.
“When I started working as a reporter, I was drawn to issues that were about poverty and how to eradicate it, especially since I had grown up in the poorest state in the country,” Hinton said. “I found myself working on Democratic campaigns where that was a centerpiece of every candidate’s platform.”
Hinton would continue to work in Washington politics until 2000. She worked as the Democratic National Committee’s director of publications and as editor of Party Lines from 1989 to 1991 under Mike McCurry, who later would become President.
Bill Clinton’s press secretary, and the late Ron Brown, who was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee when Clinton was elected president.
“(Ron Brown) was a great politician,” Hinton said. “He cared a lot about issues that I care about, and I was able to work with him and others who taught me a great deal about politics and communications.”
Hinton found a job to satisfy her interest in working with programs for the poor through Andrew Cuomo, who was elected governor of New York in 2010. Cuomo was working as assistant secretary for community planning and development in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when Hinton was appointed assistant secretary for public affairs in the HUD division.
“(Cuomo) was very much interested in programs for the poor, or places that he felt had been left behind,” Hinton said. “It was a great experience learning about the lower-income communities that he was so dedicated to.”
From these experiences, Hinton started Hinton Communications, her own public relations firm in Washington in January 2000. One of the better-known cases that Hinton has focused on has been the litigation against Chevron brought by a group of Ecuadorians who have been affected by pollution of the Ecuadorian rain forests.
“That work has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done,” Hinton said. “It is still in litigation now and has been a 23-year-old fight to try to get Chevron to clean up the contamination (of the rain forests).”
From June 2015 to June 2016, Hinton served as press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. She originally had worked with de Blasio at HUD, where she feels that she contributed to issues “bigger than herself.”
“Income inequality is such a huge issue in New York City, where housing and living costs are rising so much faster than income, while the trappings of wealth are everywhere for everyone to see,” Hinton said. “Mayor de Blasio is pushing for a higher minimum wage, paid parental and family leave, and more affordable housing to help deal with income inequality. For me, there was no better job than working on these types of issues.”
Hinton’s advice to upcoming journalists and political staffers is this: “Savor every moment of your experiences, and appreciate that you’re allowed to be a part of something that is making the world a better place.
“Soak it all up completely, because you’ll look back at your days (at Ole Miss), and they’ll be some of the best days of your life.”
Author Samantha Mitchell graduated in May 2016 with a Master of Arts degree in journalism with emphasis in integrated marketing communication. Photo by Emily Assyrian.