Veteran Arkansas Columnist Honored for Humanitarian Work

An Arkansas journalist who has fought against injustice and strove to produce positive change over four decades is the 2012 winner of the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award. Mike Masterson, staff columnist and opinion editor for the Northwest edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, will be honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists at its annual conference in Macon, Ga., May 3-6.

Masterson, 65, was nominated for the prestigious award by Jeff Jeffus, president of NWA Newspapers LLC, Fayetteville, Ark., who said he had exhibited “the same passion, compassion and concerns of the late Will Rogers” and “he is richly deserving of such recognition for his countless contributions.”

The winner’s longtime colleague, NSNC President Ben Pollock, praised “his record of compassionate journalism” and said “this is a well-deserved honor.” Pollock said he first met Masterson in 1985 when they worked together in Little Rock. They again work for the same paper in the Arkansas Ozarks. “I look forward to reading his editorials and columns,” he said.

During a career spanning 41 years, Masterson has been the editor of three Arkansas daily newspapers, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times and The Arizona Republic. From his first job in Newport, Ark., Jeffus said, “he has written compassionate columns about the people of his communities and the issues and challenges that affect their lives in so many ways.”

Eight years after he began writing about the 1989 death of Janie Ward, a 16-year-old girl from a poor family in the Ozark mountains, Masterson continues in his thrice-weekly columns to focus the public’s attention on “the disgraceful miscarriage of justice and flagrant coverup” in her case, Jeffus said.

He listed numerous other examples of Masterson’s influence on humanitarian issues:

  • His columns and opinion writing over the years has resulted in freedom for three men who were wrongly charged with crimes they did not commit, including one on “death row.” Mike’s digging for facts led to their ultimate release.
  • His columns as the editor of the Hot Springs (Ark.) Sentinel-Record changed the policy and practice of turning away indigent mothers-to-be in labor from the county-owned hospital because they had not paid in advance. He spent four nights in a fleabag hotel to write columns and stories about the elderly men who went there to die. As a result, the hotel was forced to be brought into safety code.
  • At the Sun-Times, Mike wrote articles and columns that revealed how many young black males were dying in police lockups. That led directly to an FBI investigation and prompted major reforms in the way the Chicago police department processed and handled those it arrested.
  • Masterson was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize while with the The Arizona Republic, where his writing helped expose corruption in the federal Indian programs that led to major reforms and a U.S. Senate hearing. He also was a key influence in writing about the rampant mis-medication of the elderly in America that triggered even more national reforms to benefit the nation’s elderly in such homes.
  • His investigative work at the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press led directly to a new national law ordering all police and sheriff’s departments across the country to begin regularly counting and reporting the deaths in their custody to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Since he began writing columns for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2001, his efforts have prompted positive change and reforms time and time again,” Jeffus said. Columns he wrote in 2003 about many former gastric bypass patients across Arkansas who were suffering, becoming paralyzed and even dying led directly to state legislative reforms in the manner in which informed consent for such patients is presented.

“He has written extensively about the plight of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled in our state and raised public awareness enormously as a result,” Jeffus added.

Masterson’s efforts in behalf of Janie Ward’s family earned him a national media award from the Parents of Murdered Children organization. After more than 200 columns, which also led to an ABC News special report, his relentless commitment to this cause has prompted a newly-elected prosecutor in the Wards’ district to reopen the investigation yet again.

This year’s Will Rogers award recipient has received more than two dozen national honors for his reporting and column writing. He is a four-time winner of the Paul Tobenkin Memorial award from Columbia University for his sustained writings against bigotry and intolerance. His work has been honored four times by the Robert F. Kennedy Awards for columns and stories about the problems of the disadvantaged and underprivileged.

He is a two-time winner, with an additional citation, of the Heywood Broun Memorial Award for championing the causes of those without a voice. The National Conference of Christians and Jews awarded him a National Mass Media Gold Medallion for fostering the cause of brotherhood. In 1976 Masterson was chosen to spend a year as an Alicia Patterson Fellow and he traveled the United States writing about the people beside the highways and the mood of America.

The Will Rogers award, named for the humorist and newspaper columnist of the 1920s and ’30s who performed many humanitarian acts, was established by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in 1999 to recognize annually a columnist whose work produces tangible benefits for the community served by his or her newspaper. The award, a miniature of Rogers’ statue in the U.S. Capitol, also carries a $500 stipend.  Nominations may be made by editors or community leaders.

The first award was presented in 2000 to Jeffrey Zaslow, then a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and later The Wall Street Journal, who became a best-selling author. His career was cut short at age 53 when he was killed in an automobile accident in northern Michigan on February 10.

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