Journalism has ‘comforted the comfortable’ for too long now

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In 1902 a Chicago newspaper columnist coined a now-famous phrase that defined journalism in his time: “The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Whatever happened to that?

As the Biden administration pushes forward on social programs and foreign policy moves that have consistent voter support, the mainstream media too often under-reports that support, and instead headlines the rallying cries of the opposition and glosses over deeper reasons why expanding middle- and working-class benefits ignites such resistance in this country.

Coverage of the Democrats’ efforts to craft a reconciliation bill has been relentlessly superficial. Reporting from inside the Beltway resembles campaign horse-race journalism, with an unwavering focus on minute-by-minute assessments of who’s up and who’s down.

Average news consumers have come to care about this only because the news-media insists that this up-and-down is a sign of disarray and incompetence inside the Democratic leadership. At times, it almost seems as if reporters are uncomfortable with the messy give-and-take of legislation and negotiation — preferring instead a cleaner, more autocratic style, in which a few highly-placed people snap their fingers and things get done in lockstep.

Articles and television segments on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill rarely mention that this cost is spread over ten years — and that planned tax hikes on high-earners would cover nearly all the cost.

Journalists have mentioned that Washington Beltway lobbyists have sharpened their knives, looking to cut projects out of the bill in order to protect various vested interests. But this coverage, too, has often been perfunctory, a mere acknowledgement that the rich and powerful are flexing their wealth and power.

Why not go deeper? Yet again, a popular proposal to bring down prescription drug prices seems likely to fail as key politicians shift their stances. But little work has been done to look into the industries that support those legislators and others pushing to exclude projects from reconciliation.

And while every twitch on Capitol Hill receives unending press examination, interviews with average Americans who would benefit from Medicare expansion, paid family leave and free pre-K have been close-to-absent.

Coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal was much the same. News outlets still label it a failure and a fiasco. Reporting continues to focus on the wishes, desires and disappointments of groups inside Washington: generals, foreign policy wonks and think-tank fellows. Concerns linger in the mainstream press that American “credibility” has been shattered. As Paul Waldman wrote this past week in the Washington Post, what “disastrous message” did Biden supposedly send to our adversaries and allies? “That if we launch a misconceived nation-building project halfway around the world, 20 years is the absolute limit on how long we’ll keep it up?”

Only sporadically was it mentioned throughout this ordeal that most Americans supported leaving Afghanistan and that three presidents in a row campaigned on ending U.S. involvement. Here again, many journalists seemed most upset that — as with the budget reconciliation negotiations — the end of the war was not buttoned up, not as neat and clean as they somehow imagined. 

In all of this reporting — on Biden’s proposals, on the end of the war — the focus is on the powerful, influential and well-heeled. The “comfortable.” Few angles consider the “afflicted.”

There are many reasons for this — and a lot has certainly changed in the news business since 1902. In order to survive, many news outlets now rely on subscriptions instead of advertising. Long gone are the days when you could pick up the morning paper at a newsstand for 25 cents.

Many working families can’t afford today’s prices, news subscriptions included. Many news outlets “brand” themselves to attract the kinds of people who have subscription money handy: the professional class. They would not consider themselves and their families “comfortable” — but they aren’t very “afflicted” either.

The price of entry, the subscriptions and “pay walls” that serve to keep the insiders inside and many average consumers on the outside of national journalism, needs to change. Without a doubt, many news organizations continue to struggle financially. But those same outlets need to consider the people they are leaving out — out of their coverage and out of their marketing — and find a way to bring them back in.

The “afflicted” can’t be ignored for long. Eventually, something will break.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags digital newsrooms Journalism Media bias news bias news coverage News media Presidency of Joe Biden

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