The Orange County Register’s co-owner and publisher, Aaron Kushner, has again raised eyebrows among media industry observers — including those at his own newspaper — by stating in a March 6 newsroom meeting that today’s journalists shouldn’t abide by the long-held journalism credo of “afflicting the comfortable.”
Kushner’s comments were reported by national media blogger Jim Romenesko and came after a Voice of OC article revealed a change in the newspaper’s political advertising policy that sparked criticism from industry observers.
Kushner acknowledged to Romenesko that he made the comment and said that while “he’s an advocate of investigative reporting,” the tone of reporting should be respectful. “In this day and age, once we say something negative about something, not only does it carry a lot of weight but it lives forever in the digital archives,” Kushner told Romenesko.
Kushner, however, was also quick to point out that since buying the newspaper late last year, he has invested heavily in investigative reporting as part of his overall effort to add dozens of new positions to the newsroom.
News gatherers, especially investigative journalists, have long adopted the credo that it is their role to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” meaning that journalists should challenge those in powerful positions and give voice to those occupying the lowest rungs of society.
In his blog, Romenesko wrote that Kushner’s comments rubbed at least some Register journalists the wrong way. “People in the newsroom didn’t like that at all,” Romenesko wrote, quoting an email from a Register staffer.
The Voice of OC article, published a week before the meeting, revealed that the Register’s ownership decided to change its advertising policy to bar ads that challenge politicians by name. The hange was made after two Anaheim City Council members complained about an ad that criticized their vote to approve a controversial tax subsidy for a local hotelier.
Industry experts criticized the policy change, saying it was arbitrary and creates an environment where the newspaper can inappropriately filter free speech.
Among the critics quoted in the story was USC Annenberg School of Communications Professor Marc Cooper, who cited the “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” tenet. The problem, Cooper said, is that the owners of media are often one of the comfortable.
Cooper said Kushner’s statement to the newsroom confirmed his earlier remarks, adding that Kushner is missing the message of the credo.
“It has nothing to do with tone, it has nothing to do with respect, it has nothing to do with being polite, it has to do with holding the powerful accountable,” Cooper said. “He set up a false dichotomy, either you treat people with respect and the proper tone or you afflict them.”
Cooper placed Kushner in a growing category of businessmen who have bought newspapers but lack basic journalism ethos. Doug Manchester at the San Diego Union-Tribune and former Los Angeles Times owner Sam Zell also ruffled feathers with remarks about the importance of the Fourth Estate’s role in a modern democracy.
“These folks don’t even have a skin-deep infusion of the ethos of an independent press. To them it’s a machine that makes profit,” Cooper said. “In this case, I give this guy credit for being honest. He didn’t beat around the bush: ‘We don’t want to piss off the powerful. We want to be respectful towards them.’ What more can you say?”
Correction: Orange County Register Publisher Aaron Kushner’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. We regret the error.