John C. Merrill, Ralph D. Berenger & Charles J. Merrill (2004). Media Musings: Interviews with great thinkers. (Spokane, WA: Marquette Books). 205pp. ISBN 0-922993-15-7 $39.95. Chapter further reading lists, questions for discussion.
This book is aimed at people "who, while having an interest in philosophy, don't want too much of it" (p. 7). The authors fulfill their goal quite well-perhaps a bit too well at times-in the process of providing an overview of what a constellation of 16 classical philosophers might have said about various aspects of the news media, with a heavy focus on ethics.
The book is a natural follow-up to John Merrill's The Princely Press: Machiavelli on American Journalism (1998, Lanham, MD: University Press of America), a series of "interviews" with Niccolﾕ Machiavelli whom Merrill sees as providing an unfortunate guiding light for too many U.S. journalists. Media Musings likewise requires enough of a suspension of disbelief to enable the reader to view the "interviews" as something other than figments of the authors' imaginations. There are 15 such interviews, arranged chronologically, with philosophers from Confucius (551-479 B.C.) to John Dewey (1859-1952). There is also a summary of the ideas of Kautilya, a fourth century (B.C.) Indian philosopher whose approach was similar to Machiavelli's.
The list of interviewees includes several familiar figures: Confucius, Aristotle, Kant, and Mill. Hobbes and Locke also make their appearance, along with Plato, Aquinas and a few lesser-known philosophers such as Ibn Khaldun (1331-1405), described as a "collegial communicator" who "is to be considered the father of modern social science and cultural studies" (p. 63). But John Rawls is missing from the galaxy, as are other contemporary philosophers. The format gives the authors, particularly John Merrill (who wrote 11 of the 15 interview chapters), a chance to grind some contemporary axes in classical contexts. Two examples: putting into John Locke's mouth a comment about journalists providing "enough truth...for the readers who really don't care" (p. 92), and the recurring theme of the media's focus on entertainment rather than news and information. The authors also raise some provocative and important questions (without providing answers), as when Helvetius comments about "the tension between professional or practical, jobs-oriented education or training and more humanistic, intellectually based liberal education" (p. 113).
Each chapter contains a list of "stress points" intended to highlight each philosopher's main concerns. These are generally helpful, but there are exceptions-e.g., the list in the chapter on Aquinas omits prudence, which is stressed heavily in the interview. Similarly, the introductory material to each chapter gives a useful overview of the philosophers' lives and work, but sometimes gets bogged down in detail.
The overall format generally works well, furnishing useful insights on ethics and on the media more generally. But it occasionally founders. The chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau starts out by describing the philosopher as unlikable, "self-seeking, arrogant and egocentric," (p. 97), not to mention paranoid. And the interview itself at times seems constructed more to validate that description than to provide insights into Rousseau's thought.
The chapter on Kant is particularly good in explaining the relevance of his rules-based ethics to 21st century journalists who "rationalize constantly and can justify any action" (p. 119). The long chapter on Mill works well when it focuses on how utilitarianism relates to media ethics, but digresses into such topics as 19th century newspaper technology.
The book is also burdened by careless copy editing in some places, e.g. a date that's off by 100 years in the introduction to the chapter on Thomas Hobbes, or two references to "ethic" (rather than "ethnic") groups within a single discussion question in the Mill chapter.
One major virtue of this book is providing a brief introduction to philosophers who are not usually studied in media ethics classes, and doing it in a format that doesn't overburden the reader. It also brings some classical thought to bear on current media ethics issues. But it focuses on somewhat different issues from interview to interview, providing inconsistent frameworks for analysis.
Philosophers may well regard this book as too superficial, as will some media ethics instructors. However, journalists with an interest in the philosophical underpinnings of news media ethics should find it helpful, and students who are overwhelmed by an introduction to classical ethicists may well find it a useful supplement.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 29-30.