AN APPRECIATION BY A. DAVID GORDON (Originally published in vol. 12, no. 1)
Just mentioning John C. Merrill's name would be enough to elicit a wide range of reactions from those of us who teach or write about media ethics, as well as those folks in international communication and almost anyone of a libertarian bent. The responses—in all of these areas— would range from appreciation of his contributions to frustration with his apparent glee in challenging the conventional wisdom to simple awe at the man's productivity.
But all of this would touch much too superficially on the rich tapestry that makes up the 50-year academic career of this unique teacher, scholar and individual, who in many ways is the father (or grandfather) of the study of media ethics in this country. How many media ethicists, for example, would think of topping off a distinguished career with a book featuring interviews with 15th century political pragmatist Niccolò Machiavelli on topics of current journalistic import— and then add yet one more ethics book? (For two of those "dialogs," see Media Ethics 5:1, "The Nick of Time," and 7:1, "Machiavelli and Press Freedom.")
How many academicians would even consider going back to class to obtain a humanities master's degree a decade after earning the ultimate union card, the Ph.D.? And how many of us have "retired" twice from the same school?
When asked this past June why he wrote an additional book to add to the two dozen already bearing his name, he said, simply, "I just can't stop." There are some doubts, of course, that the one more book will really be Merrill's final opus, or that he will leave the academic world entirely. At a symposium honoring Merrill before his 1992 retirement from Louisiana State University, Everette Dennis (then executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center) commented—correctly—that the retirement was "probably just another breaking point in Merrill's consistent and coherent career." And although he retired for the second time from the University of Missouri last winter, Merrill accepted an invitation to teach ethics and international journalism in Singapore this fall.
In a telephone interview just before he left, he said he has no specific teaching or writing projects in mind, but mused that he might write an adventure novel and "make a little money." That would be typical of the wide-ranging interests and unpredictable approach of John Calhoun Merrill.
Merrill was born on January 9, 1924, in Yazoo City, Mississippi and went into journalism as a teenaged part-time reporter for the Bolivar Commercial in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1938. He also worked for Hodding Carter's Delta Democrat-Times, as well as for papers in Jackson, Mississippi, Shreveport and Natchitoches, Louisiana and Bryan, Texas. He was also a special writer for the Neue Zuercher Zeitung in Zurich from 1967 to 1970, and a columnist for the Columbia Missourian for two years during his second stint on the Missouri faculty.
From 1942 to 1946, Merrill served in the Navy. He received his undergraduate degree in English and History from Mississippi Delta State University in 1949. He took his first teaching job that same year as an instructor of English and Journalism at Southwestern (KS) College and in 1950 received an M.A. in Journalism from LSU. Twelve years later he earned his Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Iowa.
Merrill was on the faculty at Northwestern Louisiana College from 1951 to 1962, and taught for two years at Texas A&M before joining the Missouri faculty in 1964. He spent a year on the Maryland faculty after leaving Missouri in 1979, and in 1980 returned to LSU, 30 years after getting his M.A. there. During his 12 years at LSU, he was director of the School of Journalism for several years, a follow-up to some early administrative adventures in two other journalism departments.
Although he occasionally regrets leaving the newspaper field ("the road not taken," and all that), Merrill said he went into teaching because he enjoyed it and because it offered a schedule far more conducive to family life than working nights and sleeping all day with two small kids in the house. (He and his wife, Dorothy, eventually raised two sons and three daughters, and thoroughly enjoy being grandparents.)
Merrill noted that he continued to work in newsrooms during summers and occasionally at other times. He added, "I've got no regrets" about his 50-year academic career path... 25 of those years in his two shifts at Missouri.
He took an interest in media ethics, he said, in part because he "realized how unethical journalism really was." He also realized that there were few, if any, journalism ethics texts then available, and worked with Ralph Barney at Brigham Young to produce an early anthology on the topic.
Ralph Lowenstein , former dean of Journalism and Communications at Florida and a Merrill student and colleague at Missouri, said Merrill regularly questioned both authoritative sources and well-accepted bromides, not as a rebel but rather to test their veracity. He has tremendous "curiosity about things that people accept just as given—that's the great thing about him," Lowenstein said. He added that this approach forces you to "defend positions you've always accepted" and, for good students, makes them think originally.
For example, Merrill has questioned the widely assumed "right to know," and has asked why this principle should be assumed... though some of his work and his comments show clearly that he personally believes in it. This kind of approach can drive students—or peers—up the nearest philosophical wall.
John Ullmann, now executive director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College (MN), recalled a class at Missouri where Merrill could be "maddening" as he shifted positions on various topics to change the focus of the discussions (or arguments). But no matter how strongly he stated any position, he was always willing to entertain challenges, Ullmann said. And he is, among other things, a gifted classroom orator.
Lowenstein added that Merrill has always had "the courage to take outlandish positions" and "does it in a mischievous way, just to see what reaction he'll get" and to make his audience think. "Merrill is always dealing in ideas, not necessarily facts," he said, adding that teaching is "the hallmark of Merrill's legacy."
Lowenstein is one of many co-authors with whom Merrill has worked on his (at least) 24 books, almost a dozen of which have gone into multiple editions, and at least eight of which have been translated into foreign languages ranging from Japanese to Malay to Portuguese and Spanish. They wrote the award-winning Media, Messages and Men, which went into two editions (plus a Chinese translation) in the 1970s, and was then revised and reissued (with the more politically correct title of Macromedia: Mission, Message and Morality) in 1990.
He said Merrill was a wonderful co-author, because "he makes you produce and makes you think about what you're producing." And his own ability to write quickly leads him to pressure his co-authors to get their part of the work done quickly. "I considered myself very lucky to have had him as a teacher and as a colleague," he added.
Merrill's legion of co-authors found working with him stimulating. One of them, upon signing the contract, remarked that he could now retire in satisfaction, since he had feared that he was one of the few people in the field who hadn't yet co-authored a book with Merrill.
Two of my own personal experiences as a Merrill co-author:
One was during our long-distance collaboration on an article for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics in 1987, which grew out of a very brief and exploratory paper that he had presented at an intercultural communication conference in Miami. At one point, Merrill sent me a draft of the article which raised half a dozen or so concerns in my mind, and I wrote back suggesting some changes. But my response crossed in the (snail) mail with an updated version from him, in which he had already made the changes I was trying to suggest!
And then there was the time that a reviewer for the first edition of our Controversies in Media Ethics collaboration came up to me at an AEJMC convention and asked, in essence, "what's happened to John Merrill?" He had been reading a couple of draft chapters in which Merrill's commentary didn't seem tightly connected to the rest of the material... something that just wasn't "Merrill-like." I had to explain that the authors writing the body of these chapters weren't working at "Merrill-speed," and so John had simply written his commentaries before he even saw the text he was commenting on! And, of course, once he saw it, his contributions were rewritten to mesh tightly with the text.
Merrill has to be one of the few academics who completed a master's degree well after finishing his Ph.D. During his first stint at Missouri, he cultivated a long-standing interest in philosophy by auditing or taking a few courses, but said he always dropped out at the least little pressure. He decided that the only way to stick it out would be to increase his motivation -- in this case, financially. So he paid tuition, bought textbooks and—14 years after earning his Ph.D.— received his master's degree in Philosophy.
His thesis was on existential journalism, a topic that became the title of one of his trademark books. In an interview published earlier this year in the St. Louis Journalism Review, Merrill said that "[e]xistential journalists are very independent, individualistic and they resist like hell the effects of corporate journalism," and cited examples such as Tom Wicker, Molly Ivins and the late I. F. Stone.
Existential Journalism is only one of Merrill's writings that reflect his strong libertarian philosophy, with its emphasis on self-regulation and the responsible use of freedom. The Imperative of Freedom (1974) was a response to renewed interest in and support for the 1947 (Hutchins) Commission on Freedom of the Press' emphasis on a socially responsible press. "I felt there needed to be a voice raised for journalistic autonomy," he told the SLJR.
Merrill did most of the writing on his most recent book and therefore—uncharacteristically— listed himself as the first author. The book—Twilight of Press Freedom: The Rise of People's Journalism—traces the history of public journalism (a topic for which he loudly has had little sympathy) from the late 19th century. Merrill said he became a bit more sympathetic toward the idea, but "basically, it's a fad"—but one that he expects to continue. Carried to the extreme, with people participating ever more fully in journalism, "we could close the J-schools," he said.
"Public journalism is a clear manifestation of the kind of thinking that loathes individualism and autonomy in journalism," he said in his journalism review interview. "It's an abdication of professional responsibility in favor of convening and being part of the parade. A journalist's role should be to stand apart and just give a picture of what's going on in society."
Philosophers have much to say to journalists, he said in that same interview. After mentioning Mill, Locke, Voltaire, Neitzsche and Kierkegaard, he also noted that Karl Marx' "critique of capitalist society for journalists is indispensable. But he and the other communitarian philosophers are just wrong."
Even as his formal teaching career has wound down, Merrill maintained his concern with journalism education. In a column in Quill magazine last June, he complained that "we are de-emphasizing journalism education and stressing the arts and sciences of communication." Too much emphasis on "postmodern writers, deconstructionism, critical theory, communitarianism and public/civic journalism" were his specific targets. And moreover, he said, "[e]veryone is becoming a journalist, and certainly the Internet is supplying the tool for this."
No description of Merrill would be complete without noting his sense of the absurd, reflected in his unceasing (and deadpan) love of puns—for example, his comment after one of his many returns from the Far East about being "disOriented." Merrill also collects beer coasters, and has a worldwide collection stemming from his own extensive travels and contributions from friends.
But it's extremely hard to sum up the man in a paragraph, or even an essay. "Well-traveled" is one adjective that comes to mind (though he said he has never been to Yellowstone Park), and "prolific" is another. He is a devoted husband and father, who travels regularly to visit with his children and grandchildren as well as to lecture and teach abroad. He and Dorothy celebrated their 52nd anniversary in Bali this fall. His list of honors includes national awards for three books, an AEJMC Distinguished Service Award in International Communication, various awards from LSU and Missouri, and listings in Who's Who In America, and Who's Who In The World. He has more than a hundred scholarly articles to his credit in journals published in a dozen countries, and his vita lists 17 lines of lecturing in at least 54 countries abroad (often under the aegis of the U.S. Information Agency) and a dozen different visiting professorships or lectureships in the United States and elsewhere.
Asked by the St. Louis Journalism Review whether he had any favorite places or memories from teaching abroad, Merrill said he could never forget "my experiences in Africa, lecturing under a tree with lizards running around on the ground. I have to admit that it's easier living and lecturing when you have creature comforts and you don't have to worry about the water."
At Merrill's LSU retirement symposium, Dennis—also one of Merrill's co-authors—said that in each of his areas of expertise, Merrill "has been a creative pathfinder and a pioneering teacher-scholar who has helped define the field through description, explication and analysis. He has done this not simply as a reporter or as a scout for scholars but also as a thoughtful and often cantankerous critic asking unconventional questions that probe the root of a problem or issue. It is unusual for any scholar both to create the conceptual architecture for a field—especially a new field—and also produce several of its major works. But that is what Merrill has done." Merrill's role, Dennis added, was one of "probing, prodding and pushing for new answers and fresh perspectives."
Although Merrill never taught a course labeled "Ethics" at Missouri (since it wasn't in the curriculum when he first taught there) the topic made its way into many of his courses and from there into his books, articles and teaching in the wider community. One could find it in both "Philosophy of Journalism" and "International Journalism," which were the last two courses that he taught at Mizzou last fall.
Merrill's approach is typified by his wrap-up to that quill article, which he began with the premise of analyzing whether journalism education has really improved applied journalism very much. "Of course I cannot answer this question," he wrote, "for we can never know what journalism today would be like without journalism education." But posing the question, and hopefully making people think about it, is what Merrill is all about.
He summed up his half century in journalism education by noting that it was "full of rich experiences and inspiration by several generations of bright and eager students. I can only hope that their education has done them good, or at least not harmed them."
Those of us who know John C. Merrill can assure him that there's no need to worry. It certainly may have frustrated his students at times, but it did make them think, and it certainly didn't harm them.
(Originally published in Media Ethics, vol. 12, no. 1, 2000, pp. 10, 25-27).