REX NELSON: News and fake news

Posted: November 1, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

I was surprised when I was invited to deliver the annual Birkett Williams Lecture at my alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University. I spend a lot of time on the Ouachita campus, especially at this time of year when I broadcast the school's football games on radio.

I grew up in Arkadelphia attending evening lectures at both Ouachita and Henderson State University, and I've always thought of these lecturers as experts from afar. I'm not an expert from afar. I'm just a hometown boy who still likes to spend as much time as possible on the campus.

Still, I jumped at the opportunity when Jeff Root, the dean of the School of Humanities, explained that he was looking for something on "the future of journalism considering the changing landscape of newspapers, social media, 24-hour television news networks and high levels of disfavor expressed by the public." I have strong feelings when it comes to this subject. Little did I realize when I accepted the invitation that my talk would come on the same day that this newspaper announced it was eliminating 27 positions in an attempt to maintain profitability. The changing media landscape is affecting newspapers nationwide.

I had written an opening line for the speech that read, "A few months ago, I had my midlife crisis." Then I realized that at age 58, I would have to live to 116 for it to be a midlife crisis. So let's call it an old-life crisis. I left a job with a big office in the state's tallest building, a good salary, a nice title, stock options and more to return full time for the first time in more than two decades to what many consider a dying industry. Why?

First, you must understand that I've loved newspapers (along with broadcast journalism) since I was a boy. When other kids were collecting stamps and coins, I was collecting newspapers from around the world. I went to work for the weekly newspaper in my hometown as a high school student and then worked full time while in college as the sports editor of Arkadelphia's daily newspaper. My dream job was to be a sportswriter in Little Rock, and I got that opportunity when Wally Hall offered me a job in the Arkansas Democrat sports department as soon as I finished college in 1981.

Second, there's my love of Arkansas. This is a unique state, and I believe there are stories out there that need to be told. I selfishly want to be the one telling those stories.

Third, I was inspired by the fact that Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of this newspaper, is attempting despite the financial challenges to put out one of the last great statewide newspapers, something Arkansans who travel on a regular basis and pick up the shells of once-respected newspapers in other cities realize all too well. Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times, often a critic of this newspaper, wrote this about the most recent round of layoffs here: "The awful irony is that the Democrat-Gazette, for all that has happened, has (and I think still will) provided more that's relative to the market than perhaps any newspaper in the country." I wanted to be a part of this effort to continue providing quality journalism for Arkansans.

I titled my talk "News and Fake News." The industry I love is under attack as never before. Some wounds are self-inflicted as the line between news and opinion too often is blurred at media outlets. I read to the audience the Statement of Core Values that's published each day on Page 2A of this newspaper. It states in part: "When a newspaper delivers both news and opinions, the impartiality and credibility of the news organization can be questioned. To minimize this as much as possible there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion, both to those providing and consuming the news."

I had several pieces of advice for the news consumers in the audience--chill out, be selective and focus on that which is local.

I can never remember a time when so many Americans seem angry. Much of that anger can be attributed to the fact that people spend so much time on social media and watching cable talk shows, getting worked up by things over which they have no control.

My advice was simple--start your day by brewing a good pot of coffee and reading a reputable newspaper or two rather than reading, on your phone, websites that have political agendas; turn off cable news in the evening and read a book instead; put the mobile phone away for long stretches on the weekend, pour a cup of hot tea, put some classical music or jazz on in the background, and finish that book you've been plodding through on weeknights.

Be far more selective when it comes to what you listen to and read. If you respect yourself, you'll realize that your time is valuable. Don't waste it on those outlets that are trying to sell you something, get you to contribute to some political cause or participate in a scam.

Quit worrying so much about what goes on in Washington. We have a wonderful system of checks and balances in this country that has stood the test of time. The stark reality is that most of our lives aren't affected much one way or another by who resides in the White House. Focus on that which more directly affects your life--the actions of your local school board or city council, what the mayor and county judge are up to, what civic clubs you might wish to join.

It's why I never write about national politics. I've decided that real joy comes from a focus on family, faith and community.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 11/01/2017