All the News about the News:Mostly It's True

Becky O'Malley
Saturday August 18, 2018 - 11:22:00 AM

This is the week that the Boston Globe and its corporate sister the New York Times are exhorting everyone in the newspaper business (and even some that don’t qualify as businesses like this site) to use their editorial pages to affirm the value of a free press in the face of assaults from You Know Who.

While we sympathize with this goal, we also understand the reluctance of the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page to join the effort. When newspapers are (unfairly of course) accused of speaking with one voice, it’s arguable that speaking with one voice is not the best way to counter that accusation.

More than a century ago, in 1902, editorial writer Finley Peter Dunne, in his fictitious voice as Mr. Dooley, launched the widely accepted definition of the role of newspapers, usually rendered as “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. I first heard this slogan, I think, in I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and then again in my first newspaper job, from Bruce Brugmann at the Bay Guardian.

But the original was gamier. (Trigger warning for the sensitive Irish: It’s rendered as an attempt to recreate Irish dialect with English spelling, a tricky technique which caused trouble for Zora Neale Hurston and others when applied to African-American speech).

“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.”--Mr. Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne). 

Before I got mixed up with journalism, I worked in political campaigns, where we were wont to speak contemptuously of the “newsies”, believing them to be ill-informed and spineless. That perception was reinforced by my experience in the first demonstration I took part in, against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960 (yes, there was such a committee). 

As the first person in line to get into the hearing room, I was interviewed by the old Hearst Examiner, ancestor of today’s Hearst Chronicle. This resulted in an almost completely fabricated front page story, which among other things claimed that I’d “spent the night in a parked car on Polk Street” with my “boyfriend”, a heavy duty accusation in those innocent days and far from true. Luckily I didn’t give the reporter my name, mindful of my grandmother’s rule that a lady’s name should only appear in the paper when she’s born, when she’s married and when she dies.  

So even then, Fake News. Which sells papers. 

But the actual goal of newspapers should be very simple, covered pretty well by Mr. Dooley’s list: Let people know what’s going on. And the corollary to that is, if the people know what’s happening, they’ll sometimes make the right decisions, especially in the political sphere.  

My own idea about the role of newspapers today is that many voices are needed in the choir. That’s why, unlike some other news sources, I’ve always been happy to be the second or third publisher of good information, never rejecting an op-ed just because it’s already appeared elsewhere. I appreciate the ability to link to good work wherever it appears and the duty to credit it in an era when “clicks” are the coin of the realm for commercial publications. 

Thinking about the many ways that news gets out, I’m reminded of one of the myths about King Midas of Phrygia. He’s the one who demanded and received the power for everything he touched to turn to gold, only realizing that it wasn’t such a hot idea when his food, his garden and even his beloved daughter in some accounts were frozen into golden statues. 

(Remind you of anyone? His daughter has turned to gold, and could end up in jail because of it.) 

After that didn’t work out, the king took up music and managed in the process to diss a lyre-playing protégé of Apollo, the Sun god. As punishment, the god turned Midas’s tin ears to a donkey’s big hairy ones. His barber, for a while, managed to help him cover up this disfigurement, but eventually couldn’t resist the temptation to reveal the secret. (The king probably stiffed him on the tip.) 

The barber went down by the river, dug a hole, and whispered into it “Midas has ass’s ears.” In the very same spot, soon thereafter, reeds grew up, the kind of reeds used for making musical instruments. Separately but with one voice the reeds whispered for all to hear “Midas has ass’s ears”.  

That’s how I see the role of the many outlets which comprise today’s media. Each one in its own way is a reed which puts forward whatever it thinks “the news” is, and together they add up to something approximating the truth.  

And who’s the barber in this scenario? Well, this week, how about Omarosa? 

The good news is that there’s always someone like her who can’t resist spilling the beans, so the media should be there to catch them as they fall. 

Many of us do our best, at whatever level we are able to work, from citizens with cell phone cameras to on-line sites to print dailies and all the way up to the hallowed NYT. And don’t forget NPR, which is my first line of news.  

The truth will make you free, right? Well, maybe, if it is indeed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

On the other hand, don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, my father told me.  

The orange guy may be right, Fake News abounds, it’s just not where he thinks it is. In our still-freeish society, don’t forget, there are all kinds of newspapers, all kinds of news sources, including the Foxes. Caveat emptor.