"The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." I first heard that saying back in the mid-1980s, when I spent a couple of years as an editorial writer at the San Jose Mercury News. The saying tended to come up in a situation where the newspaper had written something that offended a person with some authority and pull, like a local politician or business executive, and we felt a need to stiffen our backbones. But even within the walls of the newspaper, it seemed to me widely recognized that the amounts of both comfort and affliction provided were often rather small and limited. And of course, grim and straight-laced folks like myself wondered how actual straight reporting of the news fit into that slogan.
But I recently ran into the origin of the saying, and it turns out that the saying was not intended as a defense of of newspapers, but rather as part of an ironic and sarcastic commentary about the news media overreaching into private affairs, pretending to be more knowledgable than they are, and acting as judge and jury. The phrase comes from a 1902 essay titled "Newspaper Publicity" by Finley Peter Dunne, who gained considerable fame in his time by writing as "Mr. Dooley"--a made-up character who was the prototypical Everyman speaking truth to power, and doing so in a heavy-handed and over-the-top Irish dialect. Here's the relevant passage from Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902):
Th' newspaper is watchin' most iv us fr'm th' cradle to th' grave an' befure an' afther. Whin I was a la-ad thrippin' continted over th' bogs iv Roscommon ne'er an iditor knew iv me existence nor I iv his. ... Nowadays th' larceny is discovered be a newspa-aper. Th' lead pipe is dug up in ye'er back yard be a rayporther who knew it was there because he helped ye bury it. A man knocks at ye'er dure arly wan mornin' an' ye answer in ye'er nighty. `In th' name iv th law I arrist ye,' says th' man seizin' ye be th' throat. `Who ar-re ye, ye cry?' `I'm a rayporther f'r th' Daily Slooth.' says he. `Photty grafter, do ye'er jooty.' Ye're hauled off in th' circylation wagon to th' newspaper office, where a con-fission is ready f'r ye to sign; ye're thried be a jury iv th' staff, sintinced be th' iditor-in-chief an' at tin o-clock Friday th' fatal thrap is sprung be th' fatal thrapper iv th' fam'ly journal.
Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, conthrols th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an roasts thim aftherward. They ain t annything it don't turn its hand to fr'm explainin' th' docthrine iv thransubstantiation to composin' saleratus biskit. Ye can get anny kind iv information ye want to in ye'er fav'rite newspaper about ye'ersilf or annywan else. What th' Czar whispered to th' Imp'ror Willum whin they were alone. how to make a silk hat out iv a wire matthress, how to settle th' coal sthrike, who to marry, how to get on with ye'er wife whin ye're married, what to feed th' babies, what doctor to call whin ye've fed thim as directed,--all iv that ye'll find in th' pa-apers.
They used to say a man's life was a closed book. So it is but it's an open newspaper. Th' eye iv th' press is on ye befure ye begin to take notice. Th' iditor obsarves th' stork hoverin' over th' roof iv 2978 B Ar-rchey Road an th' article he writes about it has a wink in it. `Son an' heir arrives f'r th' Hon'rable Malachi Hinnissy,' says th' pa-aper befure ye 've finished th' dhrink with th' doctor."The media people who have repeated the slogan of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable might reflect on the irony of repurposing an attack on the media to serve as a defense of the media.