Oh Wise Inky: Who knows, maybe I even read it in one of your columns? But I’ve always wondered who first penned those immortal words: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Looking to you to unlock the mysteries of our universe, or at least help me find my damned keys…
Your faithful Davis inkling,
The Davis Enterprise
Answer: This sycophantic fan of Dr. Ink has earned all the wisdom and insight he can muster.
So here goes: The famous quote is about a hundred years old and can be traced to the work of Finley Peter Dunne, one of the great journalists of his day, who wrote about politics and culture in the voice and persona of an Irishman named “Mr. Dooley.” Think of him, if you will, as a precursor to Dr. Ink.
Here is the full quote as Dunne penned it, best read aloud in the dialect of an Irish bartender:
“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”
As you can imagine, the Doc’s spell check just crashed, but the phonemic spellings were part of Mr. Dooley’s wit and charm. More apparent, is the manner in which contemporary journalists have twisted Dunne’s original meaning out of context. Dunne’s argument was that the power of newspapers was out of proportion, that they exerted influence where they had no legitimate business. They even had the arrogance to think they can afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
In Doc’s immodest opinion, journalists should never use the phrase again to justify their actions, unless they want old Mr. Dooley to roll over in his grave. It is true that the worst journalism comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted. That is a breach of duty.
We need journalists to get at the truth and to keep watch against abuses of power. They have a hard enough time getting that right. So let’s absolve them of the responsibility of charity or iconoclasm. If journalists want to comfort the afflicted, they should send money to the Red Cross.