Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. –Mr Dooley on the function of journalism

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

I first heard that quote from a mentor, the assistant news director Rob “Grahambo” Graham, when I was a newsroom intern for WINA-Charlottesville (c. 1989).

It’s now one of many pithy sayings I often used in my journalism classes. As I was prepping for this fall’s “News Writing” course, I realized I had never researched its origin.

As is the case with many memorable quotes (“Luke, I am your father,” “Play it again, Sam,” “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Elementary, my dear Watson,” “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle“), it’s a distorted, improved version that actually spreads, taking on a life of its own.

According to Poynter, the quote comes from a fictional Irish character invented by Chicago Evening Post journalist Finley Peter Dunne. The character “Mr. Dooley” first appeared in Dunne’s syndicated humor column (think SNL’s news commentator sketches). In a book published in 1902, the character rants about the power newspapers hold:

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. — Poynter

For almost 30 years, I have recalled “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” as a flattering and ennobling description of what journalists do.

The meaning of words can evolve over time. Words like “queer” and “bitch” have been applied as insults to groups who have ended up embracing the words, changing their meaning. My graceful and talented 15yo daughter (an actress, singer, and dancer) proudly proclaims herself a “nerd” because she also like Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, and Star Trek.

I am a quarter Irish by my mother’s maternal line, and am thus sensitized to cultural depictions of the “stock Irishman” (a garrulous, charming, opinionated, uneducated, basically harmless buffoon). And with a name like Finley Peter Dunne, its pretty clear that the creator of “Mr. Dooley” was drawing on his own Irish heritage, using the “stock Irishman” character to advance his own views and build a successful literary career.

Culture and context changes the meaning of human artifacts in even more profound ways. The Jewish moneylender Shylock was written as a comic villain, but 400 years later a more inclusive society sees him as a tragic hero. The Statue of Liberty, a gift that France intended to symbolize the outwards spread of American ideals, took on a new meaning (a beacon of welcome for immigrants) after Emma Lazarus’s poem was added to it.