Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
Over the past several years I’ve spent a good bit of time visiting cities across our nation. Through these travels and regular conversations with your average man or woman on the street, and from all walks of life, I’ve discovered a common theme: most citizens seem to share in common the idea that they have the worst local politics and the most negative local media coverage as compared to other cities. On the surface this wouldn’t seem to be much of a problem, but coupled with the distrust a majority of Americans seem to have with our national media outlets, as well as our federal government, it feeds into a national dilemma. In a democracy in which a free press and an open government should be the pillars upholding the underpinnings of our nation, what happens when neither of the two institutions are trusted?
The foundation of a vibrant and functioning democracy stems from the idea of having an informed and active citizenry who make their decisions at the ballot box and shape their world view based on being provided the most accurate information available by their public servants as well as by media outlets. Although the business of politics is historically partisan and recognized to be that way, the role of the media historically was to simply present the facts to the public and to allow citizens to make their own decisions without their news being editorialized. Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite once said, “Our job is only to hold up the mirror-to tell and show the public what has happened.”
Having grown up with an eye on becoming a journalist, I was always amazed by the power of the press to do good, to hold our nation’s leadership accountable, and to adhere to the journalistic principles of being accurate, impartial and fair. For me, growing up with trusted voices in the media simply mattered, and their ability to cover some of our nation’s most difficult events in a calm, even and unbiased demeanor without sensationalizing them provided a unique perspective on any given issue without fanning the flames of uncertainty. Sadly, we no longer live in a time when a journalist would be considered to “the most trusted man in America” which Cronkite became while anchoring the CBS Evening News.
As I referenced earlier, politics have always been partisan and has never been given to the idea of being unbiased. However, as I was growing up there always seemed to be political figures who could rise above the fray and prove to be statesmen as opposed to being just “politicians.” In making my decision to run for office, having never grown up wanting to become a politician, I might add, it was these statesmen whose voices guided me and who I based my view that public service is a noble pursuit.
Although I know none of the individuals who inspired me to run for office were perfect, I knew that they were truly focused on public service and that regardless of their party affiliation, they engendered in me a sense of trust. I might not have always agreed with their decisions, but I trusted the fact that based upon their character, the difficult decisions they made on behalf of myself and my fellow citizens were made in the best interest of the public good. Unfortunately, those trusted statesmen’s ranks have dwindled through the redistricting process, contributing to the hyper-partisan climate we now find our nation in.
Having grown up an admirer of good journalism as well as good government, I currently find myself at the unique vantage point of being a former elected official who is now a member of the media through my position as a daily talk radio show host on WGAC here in Augusta. In surveying the situation, I’ve found that I’ve taken a remarkably similar approach to my position as a talk radio host as I did in my position as Mayor of Augusta for nine years. Much as my office served as a hub for sharing accurate and timely information with the citizens I served, my show has ultimately centered on doing the same thing from a media platform, with the extra added benefit of having no set political boundaries or agendas. Part of my foray into this medium was driven by a question I kept asking myself during last fall’s presidential campaign as more and more misinformation was spread via social networking and the Internet at an alarming pace: if citizens don’t trust the government and they don’t trust the media, who do they trust?
During my time in office, I saw what could be achieved at the local level through a focus on creating a trusting relationship with the citizens I served. I’ve often said that if we truly want to see positive change in government and citizens opinions of it, it has to begin at the local level. Local elected officials have the luxury of interacting on a daily basis with the people they serve, something our state level or federal representatives aren’t afforded. In my experience it is much easier for citizens to trust someone they bump into at the grocery store or a high school football game with no entourage around them, as opposed to someone they usually see on television or at a podium. It is my firm belief that local elected officials are the best positioned public servants to become trusted voices for their communities.
I also feel strongly that every city should have a source where they can get their news from a trusted voice while also hearing directly from leaders and community members doing amazing things in a longer form than provided by the daily paper or the six o’clock news. I recently shared with my guest Sheriff Richard Roundtree that his law enforcement efforts couldn’t accurately be explained through most news outlets as the time constraints don’t fully allow for it. However, in forty five minutes of air time he was able to tell a remarkable story of how crime in Augusta has decreased 32% in the past six years. The show has now become an outlet for leaders to get accurate news to our local citizens while helping to better educate our local citizenry on the place they’ve chosen to call home.
In a time of uncertainty, trusted voices are now more important than ever and the best place to start developing them is at the local level. Whether you’re in elected office, with a local media outlet or in any local leadership position, remember how much your voice matters in shaping the future of your community and the impact it has on the lives of your local citizens on a daily basis.