Donald M. Gillmor has been known for more than two decades “internationally as a leading expert on media law and ethics.” That identification, in material from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, is 100% accurate . . . but overlooks Don Gillmor as an outstanding human being, someone who lives his ethics as well as teaching and writing about the topic.
Don formally retired in June of 1998, having reached “the age where normal wear and tear begins to show,” he said then. But he marked his 74th birthday in April, 2000—stìll active both mentally and physically, and busy. He avoids his campus office, but continues to work with his last few Ph.D. students.
Gíllmor’s scholarship has centered more on media law than on ethics. But even there, ethics was an important component. For example, in the introduction to the fourth edition of Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comments, he and co-author Jerome Barron noted that they had placed the material on public access to print media into a separate chapter, because their users found “the combination of ethical and First Amendment issues which surround the access question to be a source of lively discussion and interest among their students.”
Don’s life exemplifies ethics, both personally and professionally. He was the founding director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at Minnesota, and was the flrst Silha professor of Media Ethics and Law. His efforts at the Center created what has been called the first high-profile law/ethics research Center in American higher education. He constantly made himself available to local and national media on ethical and legal issues, and fielded phone calls at his office regularly. ln retirement, he still gets such calls, and did a National Public Radio interview recently. But the frequency of these calls has slowed . . . probably to the media’s detriment.
Don has taken on a new project to fill the gap. He is working with severely mentally and/or physically challenged and incapacitated elementary school children who are being "maínstreamed" in a nearby public school. Don kept seeing these children when he’d stop by the school to pick up his two (unimpaired) grandsons, and “it broke my heart.” He said that, after a career working with the brightest students, it was appropriate for him to put sorne time and effort into providing the help these grade school students need.
Retirement also has given Don more time to travel, including a 50th anniversary trip to Newfoundland last year with his wife, Sophie, and to indulge some of his intellectual passions. An English Literature major as an undergraduate, he became a devotee of the novel early on, but always had some regrets about not studying History in college. (If he had to do it over again, he said, he might well major in history . . . and then be unable to find a job.)
In the past few years, he has relied on his two younger brothers—both professors in their native Canada—as mentors to extend his interests in musicology and in art and architecture, so art museums and cathedrals are now highest on the Gillmors’ sightseeing lists.
Don grew up in Fort Frances, Ontario, on the shores of Rainy Lake, graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1949 and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota a year later, before joining the Winnipeg Free Press as a reporter and copyreader. His three-year stint there included writing about a pair of “sturdy maples” in Winnipeg's north end, with “their branches spread toward the sky.” Don admitted that this flowery prose was indeed his, when copies of the story were distributed at a dinner honoring him in April of 1998.
Don left the paper in 1953, doubling his salary by joining the journalisrn faculty at the University of North Dakota, where he started the all-university Honors Program and worked part-time as a copyreader for papers in Fargo and Grand Forks. He earned his Ph.D. from Minnesota in 1961, and joined the faculty there four years later.
Gillmor’s work in the media ethics/law field has secured his place as one of the leading lights in both areas. But he is recalled by his friends and colleagues at least as much for his intellectual curiosity, his concern for people, and his ability to encourage colleagues to reach just a little beyond themselves. (Several times, when l was ready to let a project slide in favor of administrivia, l recalled a conversatíon with him at a mid-1980s conference during which he chided me—gently—for not concentrating on the writing I should have been doing.)
Don's approach to teaching was reflected in an account of his final lecture, to a “Contemporary
Problems in Freedom of Speech and Press” class at Minnesota in December of 1997. According to Bill Babcock, his successor as Silha Center director, Don was using his “yellowed note cards—which showed signs of constant updating over the years.” Babcock said that it was no surprise to find Don “current to the last day,” since he always has been able to keep his finely-honed scholarship updated.
Perhaps even more telling than the four teaching awards he received at North Dakota and Minnesota was the attendance of Bill Ketter, then editor of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), at a conference in Boston where Don was a featured speaker. Ketter said he took time from a busy schedule to attend that session simply because of the impact that Don had on him as a student at North Dakota some 30 years earlier.
Another measure of Gillmor as a teacher is summed up by the acknowledgements in the various editions of Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comment. He lists there a veritable “who's who” of younger academic colleagues in the mass media/law field. It doesn't include every one of the top academics in the field today, but it clearly indicates the impact of his contributions to the discipline. Babcock called him “the ultimate mentor for generations of media scholars,” including some who (like Babcock) were “mentored” long distance by reading Gillmor's writings.
His impact on the media ethics field is more subtle, but just as strong. His leadership at the Silha Center, particularly his outreach to media professionals and his support of public interest in this field, has helped focus public and media attention on media ethics. Books such as Media Freedom and Accountability; his co-edited Enduring Issues in Mass Communication; Power, Publicity and the Abuse of Libel Law; and Free Press and Fair Trial (drawn from his Ph.D. dissertation) all resonate with ethics overtones.
Babcock called him “a person who was very well connected to the media professionals but who always knew where his theoretical framework was.” His core values always gave him a “clear vision of who he is, where he came from, and where he was going.”
Several years before he retired, Gillmor commented that he was glad to be approaching that milestone before he had to learn to deal on a regular basis with computers in education, or with the Internet. Of course, it’s typical that he now uses computers and e-mail regularly, and makes use of the Internet as a research tool when necessary, even though he finds it laborious to read from the computer screen. He says that he is “still wedded to books,” but if he gets stuck, he is capable of using either of his Web browsers to search the Internet. “But I don’t need it a lot . . . I’ve got a lot of great books to read.”
Reflecting on the task of succeeding Gillmor in the Silha director's seat, Babcock drew an analogy to the difficulty of filling snowshoes with even the largest of regular shoes. He likened Don to “the ultimate intellectual snowshoe wearer,” making use of “both the breadth of a snowshoe and the ability it has to go off-traíl into uncharted territory,” always guided by his “wonderful internal compass”—constant, but with the flexibility to change course when that is warranted.
Don Gillmor’s unequalled ability to meld media ethics and law, and to break new intellectual ground in both areas, has made him both a touchstone and a lodestar for many of us in these fields. At the same time, the image of the grandfather putting his personal ethics into action at a grade school, and my own knowledge of the moral support he has provided to several people experiencing difficult times, illustrates strikingly a man who does ethics himself at least as thoroughly as he writes about ethical principles for others.
- A. David Gordon, still teaching when this appreciation was written, recently retired as professor and chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire. Gordon is co-author of Controversies in Media Ethics, 3rd ed. (Routledge, 2011).