Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

As I say in my blog profile, I consider myself a “recovering” journalist. The reason I am recovering instead of active has a lot to do with the way newspapers have increasingly abdicated their public responsibilities as corporate ownership ramps up the pressure for ever-increasing profit margins. All of which is by way of explaining why I find this story from the Missoula (Mont.) Independent so upsetting. The story details how the Lee Enterprises-owned Missoulian newspaper has left its opinion editor position open for more than two months, and no longer runs staff editorials, replacing them with guest columns.

For an overview of all the reasons why this is a terrible idea, read the article. But basically, in my opinion, newspapers have a sacred trust to serve as a surrogate for the public interest, using their access and their “bully pulpit” to give a voice to people who are otherwise silenced. It was Finley Peter Dunne who first said, “The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” He was being satirical, but I believe the goal is an honorable one. That obligation to serve the public is why newspapers have been referred to since at least the early 19th century as the “Fourth Estate,” providing another layer of checks and balances to the three branches of government. It’s why Thomas Jefferson and his pals made sure freedom of the press was included in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Without unsigned staff editorials, there are no opinions expressed in the newspaper that can’t be assumed to be without bias. Sure, if guest columnists advocate for particular issues or positions, you might be able to infer by their name or the minimal bio blurb at the end of the article what their “angle” is, but you might not. Without staff editorials, newspapers become vapid receptacles for biased viewpoints in their opinion pages and the bastardized contemporary version of objectivity in their news pages. True objectivity means that if Person A says “The sky is blue” and Person B says “The sky is green,” the journalist does a little independent research and writes a story that says, “The evidence shows that the sky is, in fact, blue.” Today’s toothless, lazy objective journalism thinks it has done its job if it publishes a story that gives the reader both sides, without bothering to provide the analysis that uncovers the truth — analysis that its readers may be unable to do on their own.

On a more personal note, as a former employee of a Lee Enterprises newspaper, I shuddered when I read a commenter’s reference to “booking some dark time” as the Lee euphemism for delaying newsroom hires to save money. I still remember the staff meeting announcing a wave of staff layoffs where the editor glibly told us a newsroom artist position had been eliminated (and the artist who had filled it with his talent and wit had been fired) by saying it had “gone dark.”

Eliminating staff editorials. Prizing profits above public service. Now that’s what I call going dark.

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3 thoughts on “Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

  1. The thing that worries me the most is that because this “show both sides/be neutral/give equal weight to all positions” non-objective journalism is so common, that people start to think its the way things should be. That both sides of the argument are equally valid. That the sky really might be green, and a lot of people obviously think it is.

  2. Yes, that’s the danger. In fact, both sides are almost never equally valid. The sky is not green, no matter how many times Rush Limbaugh tells us it is.I’m curious, Dave: do you see this sort of decline of journalistic standards in New Zealand as well?

  3. I think its a pretty general decline in Western / English-speaking journalism. But there is still a fair bit of editorial postion here in NZ, but declining. Journalists do complain about having to present both sides of the story even when the other side is nonsense.My friend says that these days only communists, fascists, fanatics and fools actually have opinions – everyone sees both sides of the story and won’t take a position.

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