By Arthur Alpert
I’ve always known some journalists believed the purpose of a newspaper was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but not until a few days ago did I learn the source of the quote.
Finley Peter Dunne, the 1890s-era humorist, wrote it in the voice of Martin Dooley, his famous bartender/political commentator, as Dooley’s granddaughter told the NY Times Book Review May 10.
Mind you, few publishers agreed. In the early 1900s most newspapers reflected their owners’ class interests, notwithstanding Teddy Roosevelt’s muckrakers. Then about midway through the 20th century, publishers adopted a kind of professionalism. Out with the most sensational and fictional (bye-bye, “Front Page”) and in with relative sobriety, accuracy and “objectivity.”
This professionalism was tilted toward the status quo, relying heavily on Establishment sources, “balance” and little questioning of the powerful. Nothing surprising there; a newspaper, like life, is hierarchical and owners, not reporters, call the shots.
At this mid-century point I got into the business, captivated by the joy of getting paid to learn how the world worked, innocent of the history.
Since then, beginning with the collapse (after Richard Nixon) of the liberal consensus that had prevailed since the Great Depression, we’ve experienced challenges to that professional model.