It is always interesting to read one of John C. Merrill's essays for the first time. He poses a problem and tends to provide a solution, drawing on his broad experience as a journalist, professor and author. A reader frequently has a reaction that starts with "How about that!," goes to "Wow!" as an epiphany occurs, and not infrequently winds up with, "Just wait a minute!"
For, as Merrill's regular readers will know, his real interest is in getting his audience to think, and the specific argument he makes can (but needn't) be relatively unimportant in that context. I'm sure that there are many (including, of course, John) who understand that he is quite willing to switch positions from time to time as he looks for the most effective way of stimulating his readers. He is a virtuoso of the Socratic method.
"East Asian Communalism and Western Media Ethics" caused me to go through each of the three stages of reaction-with emphasis on the last. As editor of Media Ethics, when John sent me his manuscript, I found myself writing paragraph after paragraph to him pointing out what I thought were omissions in his reasoning and exposition and hoping that he would fill in the blanks. John neatly turned the tables on me, by suggesting that I write my own rebuttal rather than expect him to modify his paper along my lines. So, always liking a good argument with John Merrill, here is what resulted. (Yes, I've given him the opportunity to comment on my comments).
My rejoinder isn't directed at the first part of his paper, which describes the differences between Asian communalism and Western individualism and how they are starting to interact. This discourse is fascinating, and stands alone. He then points out that the only means he can think of for instituting a fruitful union between these two philosophies is to establish a true profession of journalism. I strongly agree-I've been promoting the concept of journalistic professionalism (as contrasted to vocationalism, or craftsmanship) for many years, and I'm always glad to see others marching in the same direction. Both Merrill and I have a concepts of professionalism that go far beyond the simplistic idea that the only difference is that the "pro" gets paid, and the amateur doesn't.
But how can professionalism be instituted in such a way as to promote communalism without drifting over into increased hierarchical authoritarianism?
A True Profession
The Ed Murrow-Fred Friendly "law" for television documentaries holds that "there is no substitute for someone with a fire in his (or her) belly." If this is true, and I believe it is, there also is no substitute for individuals practicing the profession to have among other attributes a commitment to it and also they should practice adherence to an agreed-upon set of principles.
This isn't an easy career path to stay on, particularly in an economic culture whose golden rule is "he who has the gold makes the rules."
Merrill's formulation speaks of "a true profession of journalism [that] would assure journalistic freedom and institutional autonomy and at the same time create a structure to insure high quality and morality among the professionals." As I implied above, "wow!"
But then I ask, how can this be established, as long as government-in whatever country the journalist practices-maintains its current level of control, much less the level of absolute control aspired to by all governments? Is it possible for media practitioners, working in different media as well as for different economic entities or organizations, to stop sniping at one another in their content and sales activities, and present a united (or at least ecumenical) front in maintaining a high level of autonomy as a profession and professionally agreed-upon standards (or perhaps goals)?
Merrill says that creating a true profession would assure journalistic freedom from governments, businesses, and pressure groups (among others) while eliminating unprincipled practitioners ("de-pressing" them), instituting quality control, and creating and managing means (entrance exams and interviews, licenses) of regulating membership in the profession.
But other professions--law, theology, medicine, engineering, the military, etc--control their membership through relying on the requirement of a body of knowledge that is difficult to acquire, standards of practice and behavior that are generally accepted and relatively difficult of attainment, and whose credentials are well known and respected. True, there are some in every profession who probably don't belong there. For example, an unschooled preacher who relies on his subjective conviction of having received a "call" may not be an adequate counselor, a medical doctor who uses a diploma mill to credential his incompetence or quackery can do more harm than good, a lawyer whose advocacy has gone over the line to become part of a criminal enterprise no longer is a legitimate part of the legal process-and any who engage in outright fraud or use their position to take advantage of others is an enemy of society. But almost everybody accepts the concept that the legitimate practice of these societally important professions requires individuals who have met the legitimate standards for them. Otherwise, they are at best technicians whose vocational skills are for hire.
What is it that distinguishes one profession from another and allows us to rank them? It isn't "licensing," although that can be government's responsibility in maintaining quality control. A barber or hairdresser usually is licensed to practice-but few would confuse their occupation with that of a theologian or lawyer. College professors aren't licensed, and public school elementary and secondary teachers are licensed-but few would confuse the latter's obedience to political masters with the more independent activities of most university professors. One priest may receive a license to preach from a hierarchical world-wide institution, yet another is responsible only to his or her congregation.
John Gardner once said that the society that denigrates plumbing because plumbing is a base occupation and exalts philosophy because philosophy is a noble profession is doomed to failure because neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
True enough-but there still are distinctions between plumbers and philosophers. Two of them are obvious, and a third will be briefly discussed later.
First, the solo practicing professional usually is empowered-by everything from force of personality to community respect to formal licensing-to make all of the important decisions (e.g., treating a patient in a particular way, deciding how to represent a client, etc.) by her or himself, autonomously.
Second, the profession as a whole will clean up its own messes...at least some of the time. Policing its own ranks is a hallmark of a profession, even though we can find exceptions to this rule at almost any time, as anyone who was abused by a priest, or has tried to find a doctor to testify against another doctor, can attest. Also, if there isn't adequate self-policing, it won't be very long until public outcry leads to policing by government, its nose within the tent.
The problem with journalism (and other aspiring groups, such as the police) is that it is not-or not yet-a profession in either of the ways described in the preceding paragraphs. For every I. F. Stone publishing his own newsletter, there are thousands of reporters and editors who are wage slaves in conglomerately-owned newspapers, magazines, or broadcasting stations. (Bloggers often are an exception to this, but very few have an appreciable readership or are held to standards of fairness and accuracy). Journalism as practiced today in a democracy is hierarchical, with the editor clearly in control of the reporter and the publisher or general manager in control of the editor and the CEO in control of the publisher. In medicine, by contrast, even though there are "chiefs" and "Indians" in a large hospital or group practice, each medical doctor has control over the treatment of his or her own patients-until or unless the second principle above (willingness and ability to police the profession's ranks) comes into play. Certainly, some physicians have higher reputations among their fellows than others, but generally speaking, the title "doctor" means something impressive in the larger society.
But a reporter or other journalist could be anybody. There are no universally agree-upon educational or knowledge-based prerequisites for practice. Almost anyone with some intelligence, diligence and ability to reason-or follow a conventional protocol for a given type of story-could become a reporter, if he or she can meet a deadline. Since the hiring of the first rewrite man, not even the ability to write is required. (And for those who do their own writing, many copy editors have been replaced by computer-based aids such as spellcheck.)
Merrill's formulation would require that the candidate "have a university degree (preferably in journalism/communication or related area); provide samples of work; be loyal to the profession; subscribe to a code of professional ethics; participate in continuing education; submit to the profession's requirements; take a qualifying exam; and obtain a certificate or license from the profession."
But the devil is in the details, and the perfect is the enemy of the good.
The typical journalism degree is intended to impart a limited range of skills (in reporting and writing, particularly). Although the subject matter accrediting organization (ACEJMC) limits such skills courses to a quarter of the courses taken by the undergraduate major-it is, I believe, unfortunately rare that U. S. journalism majors graduate with the knowledge of the social (including economics) and physical sciences and history that would enable them to grapple with concepts outside the traditional or mundane. (But we should give thanks for the rare exceptions, and for those who realize these shortcomings and overcome them later in their careers.)
Why is this? I believe it is partly because there is no organized body of knowledge that we agree should be mastered by all journalists. Furthermore, because there is no control over who enters the practice of journalism-except the economic one discussed later-and the over-emphasis in America on "credentialism," many of today's journalists (including those named in John Seigenthaler's article starting on page 3) either don't care about the standards of the field-assuming that there are agreed-upon standards-or forget them quickly.
In many institutions-four-year and two-year, public and private-that rely on tuition or general tax revenues for their operations, it is easier to adhere to the goals of the admissions office or the administration's desire for high retention rates and offer journalism programs that aim for popularity rather than for high professional standards that can serve the public interest. For example, a look at many schedules of courses actually offered in a given quarter or semester (the institution's catalog can be misleading, since some excellent courses are rarely offered window dressing) shows that, in practice, many curricula are heavy on "new technologies" (or other trendy developments) and the traditional multiplicity of courses in reporting ("Reporting 1," "Reporting II," "Advanced Reporting," "Reporting Local Government," etc.). The idea of a liberal education that enables a journalist to dig below the surface easily can be lost.
Now, it can be-and is-argued that, in addition to the ACEJMC accreditation requirements mentioned in the previous paragraph, in most American colleges with journalism degree programs some 40% of the courses are liberal arts courses in disguise-ethics, law, history, the introductory survey course, and so on. But what is their focus? More often than not, the "survey" course is intended to attract lots of students from other departments, and the skills courses are marketed as a means of "getting a job" or merely "making contacts." Only a minority seem to be aimed at the laudable goals of critical thinking and good writing.
And who teaches them? Journalism instructors, many of whom have been hired in part because of their (often limited) media backgrounds and willingness to work for a low salary-and who may have similar mindsets about journalism. Certainly a media law course can be taught either by a well-read journalist, or by an experienced lawyer who likes to teach such courses. But far too frequently, they are taught by adjunct, part-time, faculty members concerned only with their own classes and not with the full curriculum. The argument over whether ethics should be taught throughout the program, or concentrated in one particular class reflects some of the ambiguity of what constitutes a "faculty" in many journalism programs.
But the "organized body of knowledge" of a profession is much more than a haphazard collection of courses. Some graduate programs do not require theses or even rigorously evaluated projects. The idea that there should be a common "graduation requirement" test of knowledge and skill comes up every so often, and is buried again just as often. Worse, a matriculation or entrance examination as a condition of allowing a student to select a journalism major is even harder to find in use.
Although many classes and instructors do a great job of leading students through the context (history, ethics, current developments) of the field, and of the world, others only pay lip service to the concept. The toilers in these latter vineyards might consider journalism to be a trade-not even a craft, and certainly not a profession. The luckier, brighter, and more self-motivated, students are able to later well interpret the world to their viewers, readers, and listeners. But some are unfortunately harmed by institutions that take a trade school approach. Others never meet an instructor who has a view of the field that inspires the students to do their best. Few schools provide sufficient high quality, intellectually rigorous content to satisfy the best students, who frequently go on to graduate study in other fields or enter other occupations.
Are today's students equal in quality to those who flocked to journalism schools in the "Woodstein" era after the Watergate scandal more than 30 years ago? Perhaps not. In the late 1970s, there was a great deal of talk about journalism becoming the home of the bright, activist, altruistic and intellectually rigorous students of the time, much as that kind of person--the ones who "made a difference"-studied law or theology a century or so before. That talk isn't heard any more-and not just because of the scandals in which journalists were the perpetrators rather than the observers and interpreters. Everyone-practitioners, managers, administrators, politicians, teachers, students, readers, viewers, listeners and voters-has affected the very concept of journalism.
In the United Kingdom, not that many years ago, some of the best journalists had only to be able to take shorthand and write well-a degree wasn't crucial, and certainly a degree in journalism wasn't needed. The same applied to high-ranking politicians, with the ability to handle oneself orally being more important than a college education, although in the U. S. quite a few members of Congress have earned Ph.D.s, many are lawyers, and far too many consider the credential of a college degree more important than the qualities of a college education. As we look at the work of the journalism correspondents of the past (and the politicians, who-like Churchill-may wear both hats), it is clear that the older liberal arts system worked better than one might have thought it would.
But this analysis, whether acceptable to the reader of this essay or not, is beside the point. In today's economy, someone willing to work cheaply enough will be hired, in order to grow the media owner's bottom line. And to the owner, the independence/autonomy of a true professional can be a dangerous threat rather than something to be applauded.
Any plan to change this pattern must take account of how churches, hospitals and law courts maintain their functions and their budgets-and still have the aura of professionalism. To some extent, this is because most of these institutions tend to be supported directly by the public. In journalism, although some publications or stations survive on reader or listener contributions, it is generally the advertisers who rule the roost-and anyone who expects a publisher, general manager or owner to desire anything more than a community of interest with advertisers, or support anything that raises costs, probably is whistling in the dark.
Those who support the idea of licensing or taking oaths to support the highest principles of the art or the activity in which they are engaged have some further nitty-gritty problems. For example, what would the applicant take an oath to do or not do? Could the old Sigma Delta Chi oath of membership be revived in today's SPJ? How would one demonstrate "loyalty to the profession" Who would manage the examination and the licensing processes? True, management might be interested in employees who have taken vows of chastity, obedience and poverty-but it seems unlikely that a profession (other than a religious one) that is based on these rules will find many journalistically-inclined practitioners to join their ranks.
In the 1960s, William Chambliss, who was in charge of "corporate communications" for a large California high-tech firm, decided to have some fun. He persuaded a state legislator to introduce a bill to license advertising practitioners (defined as those who gave advice or content to advertisers). The first requirement set out in this bill was for those desiring a license to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution (Chambliss was a lawyer and former naval combat pilot, and had retired from the Navy as a rear admiral). But he didn't stop with this relatively innocuous vow. He also would require applicants to pass a literacy test. The outrage of the advertising and public relations "professions" to this second requirement was reported in the trade press at length-and one organization (not in the advertising industry) to which he spoke gave him a 50-pound sack of steer manure as a token of their appreciation. What would happen to such an idea today-since those who grant licenses (or press passes) can also take them away? Merrill says that the rules should be set by the profession itself-but how credibility is to be maintained under these conditions is very uncertain.
There are other potential difficulties in Merrill's recipe for professionalism. Sadly, the current editions of journalistic codes of ethics (SPJ, RTNDA--and possibly, in the near future, AEJMC) are toothless, having been vetted by the lawyers who argue that the existence of a detailed code of ethics merely removes some of the defenses that the media have against suits for defamation and that any "teeth" in the code enforced by the members might cause them to be found guilty of restraint of trade-removing competition for jobs in the field. The unwillingness of major media organizations (such as The New York Times) to cooperate with such public oversight and mediation organizations as the National News Council or the handful of other remaining (and fledgling) news councils is further evidence of the probability that any professional organization would have a great deal of difficulty in implementing a code-and that difficulty would be internal.
I could go on sniping on pragmatic grounds at John Merrill's theoretically admirable ideas about establishing a true journalistic profession. "Practical techniques" are often-as the student gets out in the world-impractical and, as Kurt Lewin said, there is nothing so practical as a good theory. Naturally, I agree with Merrill that "fundamental sociological, psychological, philosophical, and economic" information is more important than "how to do it" training, particularly if the student also absorbs larger theories of how the world works-history (not just "history of communication in one's own country"), social psychology, science, and similar academic fields. It shouldn't be relegated to an "as well as" afterthought. As a wise former broadcaster-turned-teacher, Larry Blenheim, once pointed out, we need to go beyond data and information to "knowledge, from whence may come wisdom."
I'll end this part of my diatribe about the second part of John's polemic with a simple pragmatic question. Merrill suggests that "A profession would emulate East Asian values in that it would enthrone social 'teamwork,' and would discourage eccentric and individualistic manifestations by journalists." I suspect that the most common manifestation of "eccentric and individualistic" behavior by journalists, the "scoop," is part of the matter to be "discouraged." If so, what distinguishing characteristic would remain of a news broadcast or newspaper story so that the media organizations could use it to compete for audiences-and the advertising dollars that follow them?
Where Should We Go From Here?
Am I arguing in this essay that the basic concept of journalism professionalism is impractical? No. But I am arguing that it is unlikely to come about without more attention being paid to the third "missing" attribute of a profession I mentioned earlier: A publicly-accepted altruistic purpose that contributes to the public welfare. As Horace Mann once charged the first graduating class at Antioch College: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
In a way, I am expressing the view that the individual who desires to practice a profession owes the use of her or his knowledge and skill to those being practiced upon. With the long-term betterment of humanity as a goal and a criterion, the creation of a true profession for journalism is possible.
The very existence of a profession is a social contract between the society and the profession. Both must benefit. If the ethic of a group or a profession is completely selfish, without a trace of altruism, then the public will not support it. True, the Hippocratic Oath taken (or at least read) by medical practitioners may be more about public relations and economics ("first, do no harm--because we'll all get in trouble if you do. Supplying poisons gives us a particularly nasty black eye. Then make sure that outsiders can't get into the med biz unless we say so, and we should protect the spouse and kids of our deceased brethren, etc."), but nevertheless, someone who can heal the sick is doing a public service even while often being an example of "doing well by doing good."
While, in another forum, I intend to tie the concept of journalistic altruism to that of "responsibility," it is only necessary here to consider the Utilitarian concept of the "greatest good for the greatest number" as evidenced by altruism and public service performance when musing over how to make it possible for a profession to live long and prosper.
Today, regardless of the need to achieve a balance between stockholders, management, other employees, customers, and suppliers, most U. S. businesses-including media firms-have a narrow primary goal, focused on the short-term "bottom line," with their ostensible fiduciary responsibility only to enhance the wealth of their shareholders (as well as the personal wealth of top management). The society at large, employees, customers, suppliers and future generations all are given short shrift in today's economic environment-with attention paid only to the wheel that squeaks most loudly. (But if that wheel squeaks too loudly, its collective mechanisms may be on the receiving end of legal and extra-legal onslaughts-as, for example, has happened to labor unions over the past few decades-rather than monetary or other rewards).
So, while I certainly adhere to the requirements for education (and training, even if on-the-job) in a journalism profession, and strongly approve of codes of ethics as a guide, I also want to see loyalty-in the broadest sense, not slavish boosterism-to the best interests and welfare of the society, culture and even planetary population of which journalists are a part as well as "loyalty to the profession." This puts the determination of what constitutes demonstration of that loyalty back in the hands of the professional-which is where it belongs. It requires individuals more than groups to exercise their intelligence and possess Merrill's "high moral foundations." It would disdain what Merrill called "narcotizing entertainment and superficiality," "Machiavellian public ethics" and serving as a "government bulletin board or an advertising platform." As such, journalism would deserve the public respect that should allow it the freedom to use its professional judgment to serve its society and police itself. Journalists could sleep well nights, and-except for would-be micromanagers-everyone should benefit.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.29-35.