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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: The world's doormat

by Mike Masterson | July 10, 2021 at 2:46 a.m.

When I embraced journalism as my chosen career, the lessons repeatedly drilled into my skull involved the need for fairness, objectivity, context, perspective and disclosing truth (as best as could be determined at the time).

Alas, that's clearly not the case any longer, valued readers, since our nation's media as a whole in one survey ranks dead last in public trust.

In the early 1970s it was downright unthinkable in reporting news of the day to choose ideologies or political sides over the pursuit of truth, regardless of whose doorstep it might cross.

We aspiring journalists of that bygone era were educated above all else not to become shills, apologists or publicity agents for any public figures or political party.

Jobs protecting politicians were left to PR firms, public affairs officers and party flacks. News reporters supposedly had a higher calling, a solemn responsibility to inform the public accurately and impartially as the First Amendment intended in this democratic republic of laws.

Most of us impressionable ones took pride in our constitutionally protected obligation to society. After all, we were considered to be the Fourth Estate.

I was far from being alone in having mentors who drilled such messages into my head. Others who pursued this craft as students received similar education in journalism schools often led by instructors who themselves had worked as journalists before turning to teaching the next generation.

In my case, I had both former newsman and best-selling author Tony Hillerman at the University of New Mexico and Dean Duncan at the University of Central Arkansas, who was a veteran reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal. Advocacy journalism was widely disparaged as "yellow journalism."

And that standard was pretty much how journalism and reporting was conducted by the majority of true journalists until oh, I don't know, perhaps 30 years ago when a new breed and approach entered the craft.

Objectivity and fairness steadily began fading in stories I read, replaced by calculated adverbs, adjectives and turns of phrase clearly pushing a particular point of view.

Points of view were expected in opinion columns like the one I've now penned for this paper since 2001. Yet there's a sharp distinction between pursuing and reporting facts objectively versus trying to influence readers into accepting a writer's opinion.

Today, after 50 years in this business, I see much of what we call the corporate, mainstream media peppered with slanted, biased and often disingenuous reporting reflecting clear political agendas.

And what a shame it has been to witness the degradation of once-respected journalism into lapdog editing and reporting designed to denigrate, demonize and destroy those who believe differently than those circulating the slanted information.

Lest you think ol' Mike's just exaggerating, look no further than the latest Reuters survey of media trust around the planet.

The United States ranked not 10th, 20th or even 30th but dead last among 46 countries worldwide, dropping below democracies and autocracies alike.

Commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, the survey polled 92,000 people and discovered only 29 percent of U.S. news consumers surveyed said they trusted their media most of the time.

A pathetic number, don't you think?

Meanwhile, Finland polled the highest in trust at 65 percent, while Slovakia, France and Hungary each were at 30 percent.

"Unlike other countries which saw trust in the media increase this year compared to last, trust in American media remained mostly flat," the related Daily Caller story said. "Reuters attributed the lack of trust to an array of problems, including the coronavirus pandemic and the decline of local news across the country."

The Reuters Institute also described growing gaps among Americans' trust of news. Not surprisingly, the report says ethnic minorities, young Americans, women and political partisans often feel alienated and misrepresented.

To that, my unofficial survey would add all those who feel they are being played and underestimated by media intent on pushing ideologies and those in political power seeking only to increase and enhance their power at the expense of doing the best for our nation as a whole.

In 1999, according to a 2016 story by Art Swift of Gallup, public trust in the media stood at a barely acceptable 55 percent; by 2005 it was 50 percent, 47 percent in 2007, 40 percent by 2015 and 32 percent in 2016.

Now Reuters tells us it stands at a disgraceful 29 percent.

Swift said the high point over the past 50 years came in 1976 when 72 percent said they placed trust in the nation's media. Because the national media as a whole continues to be perceived by Republicans as definitely favorable toward (and protective of) the far left's agendas, it's no surprise to me that Republicans' trust in what is presented as fact plummeted to just 14 percent from its previous high of 32 percent.

The only way out of this tragedy for my chosen career now reported to be the world's doormat in public trust is to eliminate the flagrant advocacy in presenting the news and return instead to journalistic principles listed in the Statement of Core Values by publisher Walter Hussman published daily on Page 2.

I feel certain you've read them. Much of the corporately controlled national media certainly could learn a lesson from Hussman's noble message and begin practicing them in ways the First Amendment intended and our craft once strived to achieve.

For the two or three readers who haven't read the statement, it basically says credibility is any news organization's greatest asset. And in order to acquire it (along with the public trust and good will), publishers, editors and reporters must demonstrate their commitment to objectivity and fairness in what they print and/or air.

Another thought: It would be a big step toward restoring trust in America's national media if they make a conscious effort to treat all public servants equally (elected to do the will of the people and overall good of our nation, rather than promoting one side's power-grabbing agendas) in their approach to reporting.

In other words think "equity," rather than so obviously choosing sides and nurturing favorites.

Short of this reform, I predict the decline of journalism in our republic sadly will continue, although frankly I'm not sure how much lower we can possibly fall than bottom-of-the barrel, dead-dog last.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

Print Headline: The world's doormat

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