A parting look at what bugs us
Mr. Dooley,” a rhetorical figment of Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s imagination, summed up the role of newspapers pretty well in 1902: “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
The quote actually was taken out of context. It was intended as part of a scathing criticism of journalism. Still, ironically — perhaps, predictably — it has become a mantra for journalists.
It’s something this particular journalist always looks back on at the end of another three-month stay at home and the start of another four months of “vacation” doing the job he’s actually paid for while staying in touch with Marion County via virtual technologies.
Whether we’ve done an adequate job this summer of afflicting and comforting appropriate people is something best decided by you, the reader — people like Oursler’s Rip Snorter of old or our more recent friend and government watcher, William Payer, whose friends call him Bill.
What we will report — both sadly and happily — is that away from the newspaper we were able to do a bit of both at the same time this summer.
The other day, while taking an electric trimmer to a volcano of weeds spewing smothering devastation on a tiny rosebush at the base of Friend Mother’s flag pole, I was interrupted by a tiny, high-pitched, excitedly persistent, yet mournful crying coming from within the weeds.
Stopping my trimmer, I spotted a tiny gray ball of fur squirming to bury itself more deeply in a fur-lined hole carved out from the weeds. Scant feet away was an unusually courageous rabbit giving me what can be described only as the rabbit version of an evil eye.
I had indeed afflicted the comfortable — though not the comfortable I had intended to afflict — and spent much of the next few days fearing what damage my clippers might have done not only to my furry young neighbor’s home but also to his or her health.
On my next-to-last night in town, the answer came as I picked up a package at a door nearby. The same protective adult hare — giving me the same evil eye — was again sitting next to the flagpole. But this time she moved slightly — just enough to reveal her pride and joy, apparently nursing beneath her.
Obviously alive and apparently unharmed, the offspring posed for a quick photo, and I attempted to do the other part of a journalist’s duty by scattering a few leftover greens nearby. The next morning, mama bunny was still there, and the greens weren’t, so perhaps the afflicted were indeed comforted.
It’s doubtful the leporidae lagomopha family squatting in Friend Mother’s front yard was better off overall because of our intervention. It’s our fervent prayer, however, that Marion County has been made at least a hair’s breadth — if not a hare’s breath — better by what we’ve published this summer.
Nationwide, newspapers have been getting bad press. Some say we are antiquated relics of bygone technology. At a paper that has more readers online than in print, that may be partially true — at least of the physical method by which you receive news in print. But the real problem with news is much different.
Problem No. 1 is corporatization. Most newspapers in Kansas are now owned not by people rooted in their communities and dedicated to do appropriate comforting and afflicting. They’re owned by a single hedge fund that seeks to sell off each newspaper’s real estate, decimate its news staff, and impose formulas that have nothing to do with unique local interests or needs.
Sad for others but true for us, our current news staff is actually bigger than the news staffs of most of the four daily newspapers that surround us, all of which send their stories and pages to the journalistic equivalent of a sausage factory in Austin, Texas, every day to be produced. Even our in-county competition is now focused largely on cities outside the county and has let its staff dwindle.
As readers we can squeal like soon-to-be-trimmed hares as much as we want, but these corporatized entities aren’t about to listen and definitely won’t stop their trimming.
They have cheapened journalism in ways more insidious than how Wal-Mart has cheapened retail — with a key difference. You may not get the best goods or service from Wal-Mart, but at least you get a low price — small compensation, of course, for watching local businesses and the jobs they provide vanish, with the only growth areas being in overseas sweat shops.
The paper you hold in your hands or view on your screen may be a tortoise in the long race to keep the public informed and democracy vital.
We will resist all temptations to let your news be controlled by bureaucrats who spout only what they want you to know from their social media pages and in-house propaganda.
We will point out that a set of even larger corporate giants controls everything you post on social media, typically letting your intended audience see less than 20% of what you post, thinking you are reaching everyone.
But the biggest danger we in the news business face is not from competitors like that. Their products themselves are their greatest weakness. The challenge we face is whether you, the reader, still care enough to know when your nest is being attacked by clippers from soulless mega-companies.
As long as we’re able, we’ll stand ready to respond with real, local news and we’ll keep listening for the squealing — provided citizens have the bravery of baby bunnies to insist on their right to a life based on accurate, balanced, and complete news and information.
We may not be perfect. But at least we try. Will you do the same by continuing to care?
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Aug. 21, 2019