In 1941 Thomas Merton withdrew from the world, took a vow of silence and entered a Trappist monastery. Writing from that detached vantage point he was concerned that the media had lost a sense of what truly matters. In a time of war and the changes it brings, Merton drew upon the peaceful richness of both West and East to craft a trans-cultural viewpoint that today's media practitioners might use as a model for negotiating the myriad issues that arise with the interaction of different cultures. Merton's views resonate with what might be termed a romantic view of journalism that emphasizes a commitment to seeking and reporting the truth.
The purpose of this paper is not to criticize already established professional ethical codes. Instead, the pilgrim-journalist can use them and Merton's thoughts and insights as a map on a journey through a career. (The term pilgrim journalist is used here since the concept of literary pilgrim-of writing as an almost spiritual calling-is found throughout Mertonian analysis.)
Merton was born in 1915 in Prades, France. His parents were ex-patriate artists- his father was from New Zealand and his mother was an American. After his mother died when he was six, Merton lived a largely itinerant life with his father (until his father's death in 1931) and, sometimes, younger brother, John Paul Merton. He was educated mainly in boarding schools in France and England but eventually returned to New York to live with his maternal grandparents and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University. He also briefly taught English literature at St. Bonaventure College (now University) for three semesters from September 1940 to December 1941.
On Dec. 10, 1941, when Merton entered the cloistered Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky, he may have thought his life of silence had begun. Indeed, when his literary agent (Naomi Burton Stone) heard that Merton had entered the monastery,she said he would never be allowed to write again (Mott, p. 202). But his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, encouraged Merton to write the story of his conversion to Catholicism and the rocky path to his vocation, which resulted in the 1948 bestseller The Seven Storey Mountain (Mott, pp. 226-227). In Merton's 27 years in the monastery he wrote or contributed to dozens of books, journal articles, poems and essays about Buddhism, spirituality, mysticism and social justice. Merton advocated peaceful solutions during the height of the Vietnam War; decried the arms race when the world seemed on the brink of disaster during the Cold War; and supported social justice as America fought with its conscience during the Civil Rights struggle. Merton died by accidental electrocution while attending a conference near Bangkok, Thailand, on Dec. 10, 1968.
Merton was not what many might label a traditional monk. In fact, due to the heavy influence of Eastern thought, in particular Zen Buddhism, he would at times challenge Western culture and orthodoxy (Higgins, 1998, pp. 248-267). This critical approach shaped much of his personal philosophy and contributed to his self-imposed status as an outsider and rebel.1
Truth and the Media
The common thread that runs throughout Merton's published works is his commitment to the truth. Merton views God as the source of truth. Hence in seeking the truth, Merton is also seeking God. Merton is an objectivist. But not all objectivists identify truth with God: "Objective truth is a reality that is found both within and outside ourselves, to which our minds can be conformed. We must know this truth, and we must manifest it by our own words and acts" (McDonnell, p. 121.) Merton suggests that "we make ourselves real by telling the truth" (McDonnell, p. 120). However, Merton worried that modern society no longer valued truthfulness.
"Life has become so easy that we think we can get along without telling the truth. Half the civilized world makes a living by telling lies. Advertising, propaganda, and all the other forms of publicity that have taken the place of truth have taught men to take it for granted that they can tell people whatever they like provided it sounds plausible and evokes some kind of shallow emotional response" (McDonnell, pp. 122-123).
So, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966a), Merton calls for a purification of the media. "Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think. The purification must begin with the mass media" (p. 77).
Journalists could counter that there is no need for such purification since they, too, see themselves as committed to the truth. In fact, being committed to the truth is a principle that forms the first rule of many professional ethical codes.
The Mass Media
But today's media blurs the lines about who is a journalist. Syndicated columnists, talk-show hosts, amateur bloggers, left vs.- right fulminators on cable television, satirists, and even comedians are now in the club. For such a wide range of journalists and quasi-journalists there is no formal licensing. Hence it becomes difficult to establish an ethical code. In fact, many of the journalists of today's Internet Age don't see themselves as professional journalists accountable to ethical codes at all. Although today's new citizen-journalists are outside the pale of formal journalistic training and accountability, some of Merton's ideas might also be applicable to them.
Whether 21st or 20th century journalism, Merton wasn't sure the media could distinguish myth from reality. In his essay "Events and Pseudo-Events: Letter to a Southern Churchman," Merton (1966b) focuses on the print medium, but the words might be equally valid today for all media:
"Nine-tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality" (p. 151).
Merton's view can also be applied to broadcasting (although he admitted that he only watched television a few times in his life). He condemned the tendency to mirror clichéd beliefs that are sometimes aired. Others echo that idea:
"Commercial television does not challenge: in fact, it cannot. Commercial television reflects back the attitudes of the audience it serves. That's not a deficiency of the system, that's the whole point of the system. It is a medium of consensus. ...David Halberstam called it 'the cheering section for the side that has already won'" (Higgins, 2000, p. 48).
Taking that idea of a cheering section further, then anything that doesn't confirm our beliefs could be dangerous.
Merton qualifies some of what he says about mass media when he articulates the problem of maintaining critical perspective, which is particularly relevant to journalists in a 24-7 news cycle.
".how does one stop to separate the truth from the half-truth, the event from the pseudo-event, reality from the manufactured image. It is in this confusion of images and myths, superstitions and ideologies that the 'powers of the air' govern our thinking . Where there is no critical perspective, no detached observation, no time to ask the pertinent questions, how can one avoid being deluded and confused"... [Emphasis added.] (Merton, 1966b, p. 150).
As readers and viewers try to distinguish reality from a manufactured image, framing presents another obstacle to truth. Nelson (1997) defines framing as "the process by which a communication source, such as a news organization, defines and constructs . a public controversy" (p. 1). For every story that is reported, some person in a newsroom decides its conceptual framework. Thus, different readers and different viewers can come to different conclusions about an issue or a person. As such, Gitlin (1980) said framing:
(1.) determines who or what gets reported; (2.) how much reporting there is about the who or what selected; and (3.) determines who or what is not reported on.
Merton understood that and was troubled. In "The Meaning of Malcolm X," he (1966b) wrote how framing can lead to misunderstanding: "The picture of Malcolm X formed by the mass media during his life . The picture most of us had of him was inadequate, though not altogether untrue. We saw him as a militant, rigid, somewhat fanatical agitator. the chapters devoted to his life as a Black Muslim, are rather disconcerting. In order to understand them we have to realize that they are made up of material narrated by Malcolm to his ghost-writer during the time when he was still a loyal follower of Elijah Muhammad, and no changes were made in this material afterwards" (p. 186).
As he wrote in a Cold War Letter to Dorothy Day published after his death (Bochen, Shannon, 2006), Merton said that demonizing someone cheats both the journalist and the audience because we no longer see the other person as real (p. 31), but as a stereotype. Thus in providing a critical perspective, journalists must also be critical of their own perspective. It is no accident that Merton considered devoting his life to journalism (after graduating from college and before he entered the monastery) and monasticism, as he saw them both as offering avenues for expressing his concerns about the human condition. Merton ultimately determined that he could better think and write about the world and its structures as a monk. So a Mertonian media ethic requires journalists to be properly motivated toward the truth out of love. This is not a love of fame or success, but love of the profession that seeks out and reports truth, and a love for mankind, which needs to know the truth. This means journalists must take up a critical attitude-a romantic attitude-toward the world and their reporting.
Under a romantic view of journalism, crusading reporters are hard at work exposing wrongdoing. But ethical concerns for journalists go beyond the cardinal rule: Thou Shalt Not Lie, and should include:
1) Do not report rumors: Avoiding printing or broadcasting rumors becomes more of a challenge in an Internet age. Technology is not used properly when facts are ignored, omitted, or even unknown at the time of the first report downloaded onto a Web site or broadcast in a bulletin.
In a rush to inform, it seems easier for reporters to let their biases, beliefs and cultural standards frame the facts. Media scholars theorize that there are (Iyengar, 1991) two main types of frames in many stories: (i) episodic (focusing on an individual's flaws and occurring about 80 percent of the time), and (ii) thematic (focusing on societal or governmental problems). Episodic framing could lead to more stereotyping since there are assumptions that individuals within ethnic, economic and gender groups reflect the norms of the larger society.
2) Cultural sensitivity: It is the job of journalists to separate themselves from the passions of the crowd and put issues in perspective. Reporting on the "why" of the issue, as well as the "what," lends greater depth.
3) Pictures: After Saddam Hussein's execution at the end of 2006, newsrooms around the world had to decide how to deal with the pictures. Many newspapers, television stations and Web sites in the West only showed a video as Hussein was prepared for execution. But soon afterward there came cell phone images showing the taunting of Hussein, the moment of his actual execution, or the corpse. Those images forced the media to decide what to broadcast or publish.
What is the ethical duty? Do news outlets follow the lead of others in the media, or reach an independent decision? What matters in the decision-making process, competition or journalistic principles? Journalism think-tanks, such as the Poynter Institute, looked at the situation from a tactical point of view. Pat Walters, a Naughton Fellow, and Kenny Irby, Poynter's visual journalism group leader and diversity program director, thought that the media should discuss its decisions with the audience and make sure to give the historic and political background.
Merton would agree that the contextualization of the story is the key. He would probably stress that the media should do its job of reporting why the hanging is significant, what led up to it, and all the ramifications involved, as well as argue that it is the media's job to teach us the context of the entire incident for Iraq and the world. But Merton would also caution journalists not to become propagandists for a government espousing a party line. Merton wrote that propaganda conceals, rather than reveals, truth.
"Merton had long recognized the capacity of mass media to create false images and the power that these images exert. He knew how the interplay of words and images shape the way in which a society sees itself and supports values" (Shannon, Bochen, O'Connell, p. 243).
4) Diversity: How do media organizations report on other communities, other cultures, and other nations? The challenge is to give an accurate face and voice to those who seem so different to an audience either around the block or thousands of miles away. It was one of the reasons the pilgrim Merton traveled to the East, to see its reality.
Merton realized that a Westerner's reactions and judgments about Asia (or any culture) reflect prejudices and political interests likely framed by the media. Merton's efforts to become aware of his own preconceptions reflect persistent metaphysical and religious concerns. How accurately can humans perceive anything? In an increasingly multicultural world, the ethical concern is to explain and explore plurality for the benefit of humankind (Ward, p. 328).
5) Gifts: Most news organizations either prohibit all gifts or place a limit (for example, $25) on the gift. But Western journalists overseas may be in a position where they have to accept some gifts and not rudely refuse the offer. Not all gift givers consider their token a prelude to a bribe. The root of this is the Western fear that business interests will overpower an independent and unfettered press (Ward, pp. 221-222). Merton's response is that journalists who are true to their callings cannot be swayed. As one journalist put it: "The satisfaction is the pure reporting aspect of getting the story and getting it right" (Schmalzbauer, p. 49). As a matter of course, then, the Mertonian journalist would remain true to the calling.
"We do not have to create a conscience for ourselves. We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil" (Inchausti, p. vii).
In thinking about how he should approach other cultures and tell the truth about them, Merton (1973) casts himself as someone seeking knowledge, as journalists do.
"I come as a pilgrim who is anxious to obtain not just information, not just 'facts' [as a journalist would] about other monastic traditions, but to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience" (pp.312-313).
John Barbour (2005) says that by referring to his Asian travels as a pilgrimage, Merton showed he was interested in redefining pilgrimage "as an attempt to overcome the Western biases and projections that we now call Orientalism" (p. 17). He suggests that Merton is critical of Western views of the world that often reflect Western interests and agendas. Merton challenges the habit of viewing the world primarily as a means of fulfilling the West's destiny (p. 19).
Under Merton's view, pilgrim-journalists are encouraged to seek enlightenment. This directive may strike some as self-serving, for professional journalists are employed to serve the public; the companies are not in the business of hiring reporters to embark on journeys of self-fulfillment. But do not confuse enlightenment with personal enrichment, personal fulfillment, or personal development. Some reporters who are enlightened by experiencing another culture may likely end up personally enriched, but their own personal fulfillment was not their aim. Their job was to get the story, and get it right, with the aim of serving the interests of the public, not their own. Enlightenment is thus viewed as a means toward achieving those ends. Under this Mertonian model reporters must approach their voyage with the hopes of learning something new about their own culture and themselves, and then write their stories from that enlightened, but not necessarily personal, point of view. Merton might offer the following advice to pilgrim-journalists:
First, journalists who are reporting on foreign cultures have to actually interact with the people they are reporting on. Journalists should, in Merton's (1973) words, "seek not merely to make superficial reports about [these] traditions, but to live and share those traditions, as far as we can, by living them in their traditional milieu" (p. 313).
Second, Merton also alludes to the amount of time necessary to acclimate to a foreign culture. Yet in the current journalistic culture that is dominated by the Internet, reporters are increasingly given less time for research and reporting. "Haste gives us the opportunity to substitute something else for the deepest statements" (Bochen, p. 71). Thus, journalists could strive to be the best at reporting their stories, realizing they may not be the first and making sure their bosses know that.
Third, journalists should be knowledgeable. Merton was a voracious reader and a compulsive writer who maintained a rich correspondence with literary, religious and political figures who kept him in touch with the outside world and provided him with a base of knowledge about other cultures. So reporters should strive to have an array of sources who can contextualize issues.
Pilgrim-journalists know that truthful reporting requires time for research and reflection (or what Merton might term contemplation). This kind of research cannot simply be accomplished through search engines and laptops, nor can it be communicated in sound bites. This model for journalism recognizes that facts need to be interpreted, and that events have meaning.
Mertonian journalists are, first and foremost, committed to the truth. This obligation requires courage to speak the truth. Other necessary virtues to be considered are sincerity, authenticity and self-criticism.
Merton writes (McDonnell): "We owe a definite homage to the reality around us, and we are obliged, at certain times, to say what things are and to give them their right names and to lay open our thought about them" (p. 121). This respect for reality and obligation - to "say what things are" - involves the virtue of being sincere. Sincerity for Merton is not a "temperamental disposition," but a "simplicity of the spirit that is preserved by the will to be true. It implies an obligation to manifest the truth and defend it" (p. 122). Merton suggests that people who are sincere "are less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for [they] think that if the truth be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself" (p. 124).
Authenticity is another virtue that is important for Mertonian journalists. If sincerity requires the will to be truthful, authenticity legitimates that what is willed to be true is, in fact, true. Authenticity, like sincerity, requires a respect for truth. While sincerity requires reporters to "say what things are," authenticity requires them to be sure that "things are what they say." Authentic reporting requires that journalists put in the long hours of research, information gathering and fact-checking. Journalists striving for authenticity seek firsthand knowledge and original sources.
Related to the virtue of humility is self-criticism. Barbour (2005) suggests the evidence of this virtue in Merton can be seen in his accounts of his Asian voyage:
"Merton worked hard to overcome Western prejudices and to learn from Asian cultures. He tried to correct his biases by listening to the voices of living Asian people and intensive study of Asian texts" (p. 26).
As they interface and interact with cultures different from their own, Mertonian journalists- pilgrims with a purpose- would do well to keep these more philosophical questions in mind. For self-criticism is not only essential for sincere and authentic reporting; it can also serve as a powerful anecdote against our hubris as Westerners.
The poet William Blake would say that poets must question the world and remain open to new ideas. Merton was an expert on Blake, so he would say the same about journalists. To stay open to the world- to see a world in a grain of sand- means that journalists must at key times question beliefs.
There is a metaphor for this in Merton's classic essay, Rain and the Rhinoceros (1966c), which describes the sickness ("rhinoceritus") of mass society that has lost its sense of solitude and contemplation. The narrator (Merton) talks about being separated from the main body of the monastery in his own hermitage in a nearby cabin; he is a hermit in a colony of hermits. Merton would say "it is the solitary person (whether in the city or in the desert) who does mankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its true capacity for maturity, liberty and peace" (p. 22). An analogy can be drawn to the romantic version of the journalist who stands up to authority and asks the pertinent questions and reminds the audience of the constant truth.
As a monk, Merton disconnected himself from the world. He immersed himself in other, non-Western, cultures and borrowed their ideas to turn a critical eye toward his own culture and cultural perspective. He resisted herd mentality in order to seek and speak the truth. At the same time he recognized the absurdity of seeking and speaking the truth in a world that makes it more and more impossible. Merton would refer to this detachment as the essence of monasticism - being in the world, but not of the world.
For the secular journalist, detachment takes on a different hue. What journalists do is maintain their critical perspective and commit themselves fully to the truth. Merton believed that if the truth can be seen clearly then everything will take care of itself. It is the job of journalists to uncover this truth, regardless of culture and regardless of consequences.
1. In a Letter to Czeslaw Milosz (May 21, 1959), Merton wrote: "Even as a Catholic I am a complete lone world, and not as independent as I might seem to be, yet not integrated in anything else either." (Bochen, 1993, p. 60).
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