Art of Column Writing
This column originally was published in the February 2014 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
By Suzette Martinez Standring
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
With a 40-plus year career Michael Rue Masterson offers daunting advice: Be relentless in telling the truth. He places a premium on the power of intangibles — such as intuition, a higher power and purpose — and believes his career success provides convincing evidence that such things are real. He has received journalism’s highest awards and honors, including the 2012 NSNC Will Rogers Humanitarian Award.
Prior to his writing op-ed for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2001, Masterson had been a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun Times and The Arizona Republic, where he headed that paper’s investigation team. Throughout his career he fought corruption, freed men from years of false imprisonment and discovered killers in cases long gone cold. The ease and regularity in uncovering evidence baffled his co-workers, but he remained mum for years, fearing the answer would have him pegged as a “fruitcake.”
So what is Masterson’s secret?
“Until recently, I was reluctant to acknowledge what I’m telling you. It’s because I simply opened myself up fully and asked to be used. If you ask to be used, it will happen,” said Masterson, who is 66 years old.
As a 26-year-old journalist in Newport, Ark., Masterson underwent a profound experience. “In the middle of the night I woke up, and I realized there was something, I don’t know, I can only describe it as an intense energy swirling through the bedroom. I never felt anything so strange yet palpable, so I laid there and simply acknowledged its presence. I said, ‘I can tell you’re here all around me.’ It went fully through me and literally filled the room. Then I said, ‘I know you’re here for a reason, so just take and use me for whatever that reason might be. And when it’s my time to go just take me.’
“That’s exactly what I said. Afterwards, it was like a dam had broken in my life and career. I was continually led to these incredible stories where truth had been hidden, corruption of the crime lab, innocent people in prison, two guilty people who had gotten away with crimes, a whole community that needed reform. It was just amazing as the list grew and went on and on and on.”
Masterson believes each person’s life span represents a limited period to make a difference. The greater good — not one’s self interest — should be the focus of existence, and he said, “If you are fortunate enough to be given a column, where your opinion is laid out for hundreds or thousands to read, then you’ve been bestowed a weapon of sorts because nothing is more powerful or feared than truth. How you choose to wield that weapon is yours alone.”
No op-ed columnist can be neutral when it comes to truth, according to Masterson, who coined an expression: “Evil flourishes in direct correlation to the extent that truth is violated.”
He added, “In other words, tell a little lie create a little evil. Tell a bigger lie create a bigger evil. It’s a matter of balance. When you knowingly deviate from what is true for whatever reason — personal gain or attention — you create evil. Forget the politics of an issue. What really happened? Let the chips fall, and balance will be maintained.
“That’s how I see life anyway. I am a physical, failing shell. And it can fail at any minute from a car wreck, disease, accident or something. While we may be but a shell, the essence of who you and I are and what we stand for during our limited amount of time here rings forever through eternity.”
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Excerpted from The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists by Suzette Martinez Standring. Available directly or by mail order from bookstores. Suzette is a syndicated columnist with GateHouse Media, a cable TV show host and writing teacher. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.readsuzette.com.