A quote from a University of Southern California journalism professor regarding the role of newspapers to “afflict the comfortable” has mushroomed into a war of words between the academic and Orange County Register Publisher Aaron Kushner.
Kushner told Professor Marc Cooper, an award-winning journalist whose three decades of reporting experience includes work for the Los Angeles Times, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker and Rolling Stone, that he hasn’t done his "homework."
The skirmish began Feb. 27 when Cooper invoked the journalism credo to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" as part of his critique the of Register’s recent decision to restrict certain political advertising.
The newspaper changed its policy so it will refuse ads that name individual politicians. The change was made after two Anaheim City Council members complained about ads that criticized their support of a hotel subsidy.
A Voice of OC article on the policy change quoted Cooper as saying that most mainstream media outlets, including the Register, are reluctant to hold the powerful accountable because they are typically “one of the comfortable.”
Kushner addressed Cooper's comments during a March 6 newsroom staff meeting, telling his staff it is not the role of journalists to be "afflicting the comfortable.” Kushner's statements were first reported by the national media-industry blogger Jim Romenesko.
Voice of OC followed Romenesko on the issue Wednesday, seeking comment from Kushner via email.
Kushner did not respond Wednesday, but on Thursday he sent an email further defending his position to both Voice of OC and Cooper and then another to Cooper that harshly criticized the professor's comments.
Here is verbatim text of the email exchange:
Thank you for your note Adam, and your comments Marc.
We understand the role, the full role, of newspapers. We believe that newspapers exist to serve their communities, not afflict them. The word "afflict" connotes malice and infliction of pain. One cannot afflict a community that one is trying to serve.
There are many ways a newspaper serves its community. One important way is by holding those in power accountable for their use of that power. That is why in just the last six months the Register has hired more investigative reporters and journalists to cover city halls and Orange County business and political leaders than every other newspaper in America combined. How we cover those in power with one of the largest watchdog and beat reporting teams in the country is about getting it right, which includes tone. I agree with Marc that there is no dichotomy between being respectful and having robust coverage of our community and those who lead it.
Living outside of our market, Marc, unfortunately you may not have an easy way to be a daily reader of our papers including our 22 stand-alone broadsheet community papers town by town as we cover our leaders with a breadth and rigor that is growing by the week. When one of our subscribers picks up, for example, our 76 page, 7 section Monday paper what they now get is deep, engaging coverage of as many important parts of Orange County as possible.
At 3:35 p.m., a Voice of OC reporter sent an email to Kushner offering to publish his response as a letter to the editor:
Thank you for your response on this issue. As you know, the article was published before we received your email. We feel your perspective was adequately represented in the piece.
However, we'll be more than happy to publish your note as a letter to the editor if you would like readers to see your additional comments.
Let me know you thoughts.
All the best.
Adam Elmahrek, Staff Writer, Voice of OC
That same minute, Kushner sent the following email to Cooper:
I read some of your quotes in the recent web site report.
I know you have an amazing history of reporting and journalism, but it strikes me that you did none of your basic homework before going on record.
Next time, before you critique one of the only newspapers in America which is hiring meaningful numbers of journalists and growing its watchdog team, would you like to perhaps (a) see our product, (b) talk to any one of our highly respected editors- some of the best in the country- like say Ken Brusic or Rob Curley or Donna Wares or Michelle Nicolosi all of whom I suspect would say that your caricature view of us is incorrect, or (c) talk the ownership you're criticizing.
By the way, of those four editors above, three were new hires and two have won Pulitzer prizes for hard hitting investigative reporting and editing — hardly the actions of an owner who "doesn't even have a skin-deep infusion of the ethos of an independent press." Do you know the name of our senior editor who runs our watchdog group? Did you talk with him?
What an alt-weekly or website says is their own business. As a prominent professor at one of the best journalism schools in the country, should you live up to a higher standard of journalism? A standard that I am sure you brought quite well to your reporting....
After you've done your homework, if you still believe that we don't know anything about journalism, don't have a robust watchdog team, just think of the newspaper as a money machine (have you seen many newspaper P&L's lately?) or run our paper like Sam Zell — by all means go back on record saying so.
I wrote this note not because of something personal, but because you are and I hope will continue to be a role model for our next generation of journalists. I hope that in the future you will carry that mantle more thoughtfully.
Cooper responded with this email sent to Kushner and Voice of OC at 3:55 p.m.:
Your newspaper, as you put it, is visible to the entire world via the web. I know many of the OCR staff both past and present. My only other response to you is that any media executive already knows or should know what the deeper meaning of the phrase "to afflict the comfortable" implies. Not to torture or stick pins into the powerful, but rather to hold them accountable without fear or favor. That is your stated goal. I wish you luck in that endeavor.