Hope springs eternal, it is said. I hope so. But the slushy, soft, idealistic protestations of today's communitarians merging with the press critics' cynical, sharp, arrogant voices are enough to make Nietzsche rise up and shout "enough!" And for me to say-Nope, no hope for an ethical media system.
Admittedly Enlightenment liberalism won't work. We've tried it. For a long time. Just use your individual intrinsic reason or God-given conscience (or both). Individual ethical behavior will impact others and the whole moral level of society will be raised.
So it is said, but it hasn't happened. You can take Aristotle, Kant, Mill and dozens of others-toss in more personal spice with a little Ayn Rand-and there appears to be no solution to the problem of ethics.
But people still hope-and propose new "theories" to make us more ethical. For example, now it is the communitarians.
Be a nice, functioning group person. Transform civic society. Get with the comfortable warmth of others and relax in the sunlight of collective security. Co-operate, network, and sublimate yourself to the goals of the community. Old Rousseau is smiling. At last his social contract and general will is getting attention. His voice is rising again in the field of media ethics, as a host of anti-Enlightenment polemicists, led by Cliff Christians and his disciples, emit a kind of intellectual religious fervor in their contention that the individual should not have any rights not possessed equally by all. Journalists must get with the common good, not to be confused with the aggregate of individual goods.
The integrating norm, we are told by Christians, is not the social whole or individual rights but "humans-in-relation." And we must remember that collectivism is a holistic paradigm that brings people into the social organism. So? Did not John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and J.S. Mill see their societies as "social organisms"?
The communitarians say that news must be transformed from the providing of objective, unbiased information to being an agent of community formation. No wonder many working journalists are puzzled by such contentions. Too vague. Too soft and mushy. Too ephemeral. One can almost hear the whispering breezes blowing through the trees.
And sense Hegel's consuming, transcendent and conforming "spirit" seeping through the walls of journalism. But the journalists ask: What's wrong with unbiased news and an attempt to be objective? Should not we leave community formation and public transformation to social workers and politicians? Anyway, Nietzsche stirs restlessly. Even Kierkegaard winces. And Marx looks over at Hegel and Rousseau and nods approvingly. But, in retrospect, these persons did not help morality very much. They were outsiders really and, with the possible exception of Kierkegaard, caused more pain than pleasure.
Get away from professional ethics in journalism, the communitarians advise. Get concerned about general morality. Kant is puzzled. Does not general morality encapsulate professional morality? Rules are rules, principles are principles-anywhere at any time.
And these principles are formed by the rational individual, not by a social contract.
Robert Nisbit, arguably America's foremost sociologist, even sees hope in communitarianism. But he mainly relates the concept to the family, the neighborhood, the region, and perhaps the country. But not to the world. He, like the ancient sage Confucius and the modern conservative Russell Kirk, believes that community is locally rooted, that community begins at home. Individuals with roots, persons with common traditions, people conversing. But perhaps more important: People with a feeling for place and a respect for individuality.
Nietzsche skeptical about the canaille. Thoreau seeking solitude from the community. Robert Nozick questioning John Rawls' obsession with egalitarianism. Huck Finn finding solace in escape from community. There are still the romantic and existential remnants of individualism. But have such voices solved the ethics problem? Regardless of individualism or collectivism, the general run of people will be unethical. There is really no way out. Machiavelli's presence is more potent in the real world and the world of the media than any of the mainstream ethicists.
Cliff Christians, aspiring for the harmony and safety of a communication harbor, seems to want to return to the security and paternalism of the Medieval societies-complete even with the overarching stabilizing influence of the Church, or at least of religion. My view of ethics, it is true, does not conform well with security and paternalism. Rather it is more self-imposed than peer-imposed; it is more personal than social, and it is more intrinsic than extrinsic. This is, to be sure, a greater-but for me more interesting-obstacle to overcome on the rocky, unpredictable moral road. We won't overcome it, but we can at least face it personally.
One cannot be ethical alone. Communitarians happily point that out. Maybe not, but it could be that one can be moral alone-where basic character does not hinge on "acts." At any rate, I prefer the other people to be few, and the community to be rooted in ideology, tradition, a sense of place, and group imposition on my actions to be minimal. Even to speak of "community" reminds me of the first century Desert Fathers of Egypt. Now there was a community! Individuals sharing, but with various of the Fathers wandering off alone into the desert to enrich their personal souls and embrace detachment.
First cousins of the communitarians-the critical theorists-have been attacking Enlightenment liberalism since the 1950s from another direction with their anti-capitalist rhetoric. Big media conglomerates are destructive to message diversity; arrogant and selfish entrepreneurs are stifling public voices; the people's right to know is being undermined by the media's over-emphasis on press freedom; and the profit motive is squeezing out the concept of public service.
This two-pronged ideological war on individualism and capitalism is potent and ongoing.
The ringing tones of egalitarianism and communitarianism sound throughout the media world and settle into our public rhetoric and academic publications. How good it sounds!
Equality, security, stability, harmony, cooperation. A brand of Puritanism, but reverberating with a kind of Rousseau's General Will that emphasizes "collective morality," the good of the group and the interests of everybody.
No real need for us to keep worrying about professional ethics. Just level society; get rid of those pegs that are sticking up. Transform the public into a smooth-running, harmonious community, all for one and one for all. A kind of metaphysical mist will settle over public communication, coming from general moral clouds and turning the media into instruments of social transformation. Come on, now..
Get real. Read history. Look around us. Talk to publishers and editors. Listen in to editorial conferences. What do we put in place of a capitalistic press? Government?
Look at government. Moral chaos. Who should run our journalism? The people? Be realistic! Media ethics-with its positives and its negatives-is not about to be changed by any of the moral theories proposed by any of us. We have only to learn to live with media irresponsibility-if we are to value freedom.
So, in spite of my long journey through the byways of journalistic philosophy, I think we must resign ourselves to unethical media stemming from what I still believe in-the imperative of freedom.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp. 4,15-16.