THE ETHICS OF JOURNALISM AND THE LIBERAL ARTS

by

Lawrence J. Johnson

Department of English

Before crossing disciplinary lines to assume the

chairmanship of a Department of Communication, I hadn't thought

much about the subject of journalistic ethics; when I did, I

tended to treat the topic as an oxymoron much like "military

intelligence" or "criminal justice." But after five years in that

position, I came to recognize that subject as arguably the most

problematic aspect of our department's curricula, one which had

received little service from its general Liberal Arts context. As

a consequence of a second interdisciplinary effort, participating

in the development of a three-semester "Great Books" sequence, I

am beginning to see what can and must be done by faculty in the

Liberal Arts to develop an adequate sense of journalistic ethics

not only among our journalism students but among all students

who, in this information-intensive society, participate in and

depend upon our modern media.

I do not apologize for my earlier flippancy, for it merely

signaled my unthinking participation in the prevalent American

skepticism about the ends and means of today's journalists. I

need not elaborate on that skepticism, but can simply point to

the patent lack of sympathy shown journalists who protested the

constraints placed upon them during Operation Desert Storm. The

crux of the problem I discovered in our curricula is space and

time: given ACEJMC'S limits on the number of journalism courses,

there is rarely room for more than a single course in media law

and ethics, and in that course the complex legal environment

tends to consume what time is available.

Further, it is all too often the case that the ethical

content in such courses is presented canonically, as a list of

"rights" and "responsibilities," of what should be done and what

shouldn't be done. Such an emphasis on the substantive "what"

obscures the much more critical ethical issues of the technical

"how" and the normative "why" that lead to ethical decisions.

Finally, such courses are populated entirely by journalism ma-

jors, and thus there is no dialogue between these emerging pro-

fessionals and those whom they will serve in the future, a prob-

lem compounded by a general lack of an overt ethical focus in the

curricula of other Liberal arts departments.

What I have found, however, is that not only do I have the

means to address all of those issues (including my own

skepticism) as I lead students through a three semester sequence

that ranges from Hesiod to Stephen Hawking, but, should this

sequence disappear from our curriculum, I could continue to

address journalistic ethics in whatever Liberal Arts course I

would be asked to teach. And so my purpose here is to describe

that potential as I found it in my teaching and thus to challenge

other liberal arts faculty to participate in the process of

developing in their students an ethical sensibility capable of

making moral use of today's media.

While the ethical possibilities are virtually unlimited in

the liberal arts, I would emphasize four focal points of particu-

lar relevance to both media professionals and their audiences:

the nature, functions, and significance of myth and mythmaking;

the centrality and persistence of the Western rhetorical tradi-

tion; the evolution of our dependence upon Aristotelian analysis

in its various permutations; and, most importantly, the emergence

of Western visions of society against which we measure ourselves

and others.

Myth is generally viewed by journalism students as the

antithesis of their of their intended enterprise, and so to

suggest that it lies at its very heart is initially confounding.

Like their peers in other disciplines who naively assume that

they are reaching towards an absolute reality through the

methodologies of their chosen fields of study, journalists view

myths as barriers to factuality and truth. But media

professionals both exploit and create myths themselves, and

unless their participation in both processes is conscious, their

"in-forming" of their audiences may be well-intentioned but

pernicious.

Moreover, their readers and viewers have an equal if not

greater need of such a consciousness, for they must decide how to

act in response to what they have been supplied by those in the

media. Undergraduate students in all disciplines must be brought

to an understanding and appreciation of the processes by which we

organize and reorganize experience, how we derive these

organizational structures from those developed and communicated

to us by our predecessors and how we then modify them further by

combining and recombining our experience with the various

alternative structures we discover.

Let me attempt to be somewhat more specific and concrete. On

the surface, the utterly antithetical myths embodied in Hesiod's

Theogony and the first two chapters of Genesis seem far removed

from cutting a lengthy wire story on free trade to fit the limit-

ed space budgeted for the story in the local paper. But those two

visions of creation -- the former viewing competition as the

essence of creation, with the winner being right by might, the

latter postulating an ordered, purposeful world that places a

premium on compliance -- are in competition as the copy editor

chooses what can be cut from the arguments on either side, just

as they competed in the mind of the reporter who chose what to

include in the original article.

And these two myths are equally operative, at some level, in

the minds of readers who will ultimately decide, in some form,

what they believe should be done about trade barriers. I view the

issues inherent in disputes about free trade as part of an

infinitely larger set of mythic issues about the nature of order

and disorder in the universe, the ability or inability of

individuals and groups to create and augment such order if it

exists, and, if it does not (as our persistent invocations of

Murphy's Law suggests), what we can do to best survive such

disorder. Acting intuitively, all participants in the process

will swing in the direction of their individual mythic

predispositions, and that contributes nothing to a public

dialogue.

But if, on the other hand, the writer, the editor and the

reader were to act with a background awareness of these competing

myths, they could consider this issue more comprehensively, do

justice to both sides of the issue more comprehensively, do

justice to both sides of the issue by recognizing and

compensating for their own biases, and, if unable to come to a

consensus, at least recognize the validity of opposing points of

view. This is the ideal dialogue that is used to justify our

press freedoms; without such an awareness, no viable dialogue on

pertinent issues can exist.

I hold it to be the responsibility of Liberal Arts faculty

to identify and analyze the mythic structures that permeate both

their material and the methodologies they employ on that

material. Only through such comparative analyses of competing and

persistent patterns of human response can both journalism

students and their future audiences assume conscious

responsibility for their decisions about their life and how they

will live it in close contact with those around them.

But this comparative analysis of mythic structures is

incomplete without a concomitant analysis of how we have come to

use the tools of Western rhetoric, refined over millennia, to

propagate such myths within a public dialogue aimed at eliciting

action from groups of people. My studies suggest that such rheto-

ric is not universal: many cultures, including subsegments of our

own, refuse to proselytize or persuade others and simply exclude

those who do not share their mythic vision. But we have a domi-

nant tradition whose mythic remains are the underpinnings of our

journalistic ideals and whose practices are the source of so much

skepticism about the validity of those ideals Western rhetoric

began in the Athenian assembly, where the consensus of divergent

groups was needed first to resolve disputes that threatened to

fracture the fragile union of competing tribal groups within the

city and, later, to sustain the collective enterprises of the

Athenian state in its struggles for Hellenic supremacy.

Dominating the early evolution of practical rhetoric were

the sophists, those skeptical systematizers who suffered much

enduring abuse from Plato's equally skeptical (and mythical)

Socrates. Their strength was their systematic analysis of lan-

guage and what it could do to elicit the desired actions from

others; their problem came to be their utter skepticism, which

led them to conclude that they desired to do and could do with

words was, faute de mieux, what should be done. This conclusion

was not particularly disturbing to individuals who shared the

vision of Homer and Hesiod where man was chiefly an impotent

victim of uncaring cosmic forces and who thus believed that doing

something --even Hector's dying nobly outside the walls rather

than more efficiently defending his doomed city from within them

-- was better than nothing.

But Plato would vociferously and cogently decry the lack of

such a transcendent moral core, and Aristotle would, with equal

confidence, work towards a definition of that moral core. Subse-

quently, Cicero, Augustine, Dante, More, Hobbes, Locke, Hume and

countless others would claim to find such a core; today, the

heirs of Thomas Paine still justify their use of rhetoric through

a confidence in the morally superior "common sense" emerging from

the democratic process. But the sophists had already established

the precedent: people could be moved to action through the delib-

erate use of language, and while that use could be moral, it need

not be; all it had to do was persuade by meeting the perceived

needs of the audience, by the speaker's effective development of

a cogent ethos and appeal.

In the West, the sophistic Enlightenment destabilized both

forever more, consciously encouraging its manipulation and trans-

formation in whatever ways would be achieve the ends of a partic-

ular proponent for a particular action. The grand example is, of

course the Trojan War, transformed by the political Virgil from a

pessimistic statement of the gods' violence towards man as re-

corded by Homer to a compelling justification and celebration of

the Roman imperium. This instance of mythic revisionism is not

just a historical curiosity, for the continued manipulation and

mutation of that myth is evident today as we engage in a critical

analysis of the Columbian Quincentennial, as we look once again

at the "domino theory" once used to support our involvement in

Vietnam, and as we celebrate the rightness of Desert Storm while

considering massive cuts in the Defense budget. More often than

not, the mutations of a myth continue to live side by side - -

both Homeric and Virgilian themes were readily apparent in state-

ments made about the war in the Persian Gulf -- and in fact may

be found to be operative in the rhetoric of a single individual

-- Vietnam vets who shared Homer's pessimistic vision of their

own war and initially feared the same for the soldiers of Desert

Storm but then came out for the victory parades in a display of

Virgilian enthusiasm. Myths in the West, manipulated for the ends

of rhetoric, persist in multiple mutations, each of which retains

and exerts an evocative power for a given segment of society.

Many use them honestly, if unconsciously; other, licensed by the

traditions of rhetoric are truer to that tradition in their

unscrupulous expediency.

The philosopher, the literary critic, the historian, and

even the sociologist and psychologist can each, in the context of

their own disciplines, bring these mutations to light; their

contextual analysis can illuminate how they came to be, how they

were and are used, and how they were and are abused. Because

both the journalist and the reader are the too often unwitting

heirs of this amoral rhetorical tradition, and because they

interact in the very birthplace of western rhetoric -- the polit-

ical arena -- they each are in critical need of such insights.

The journalist, confronting today's politicians of

expediency, the sophists' brightest students, must be sensitive

to the manipulative techniques that use historically mutated but

historically sanctioned myths to give the ring of truth; they

must be equally sensitive to the rhetorical "spin" they

themselves can unconsciously put on a story in the service of

their own vision of "truth" or, more crassly, increased

circulation.

Likewise, readers must recognize what is being done to them

and how by both the reporter's subjects and the reporter; readers

cannot be passive, for they too have a responsibility, if only to

themselves and not to their fellow citizens, to recognize their

own rhetorical agendas and the influence such agendas have on

their own responses. Such a consciousness may not lead to a

successful public debate, but it is a necessary prerequisite that

is too often missing.

The underlying pessimism in the above remarks seems

unnatural because of a third feature of our Western tradition:

the optimism of Aristotle, whose insights into natural processes

gave us a technology without peer, and then led us to assume that

we could achieve a similar accuracy in the world beyond the

physical and find the truth of things wherever we needed to find

it. To wake up sleeping students, I sometimes caricature Aristo-

tle as the man who led us to believe that, if we paid careful

attention, we could find our lost chewing gum in the chicken coop

of ethics, and ever since then we have repeatedly thought that we

had, only to taste disappointment.

And Aristotle is a particularly hard subject for contempo-

rary students because his method -- analyzing processes in terms

of their final, formal, material, and efficient causes -- sounds

so esoteric and yet is so ubiquitous in the way we do science,

engineering, and even journalism: when a reporter successfully

meets his old professor's injunction to tell who, what, where,

why, when and how he has simply done a thorough Aristotelian

analysis, at least on the surface. And Aristotle's wisdom is

everywhere: his process-based method of taxonomy (which places

tomatoes among the fruits and disqualifies peanuts as nuts) is so

functional that its application to the relative roles of men and

women went without question for centuries. Without an absolute

confidence in Aristotle's principle of contradiction -- that

something cannot be both A and not A at the same time -- we could

not trust our computers; but that same apparent absoluteness is

discrimination has now made the very word "discrimination" a

suspicious pejorative in contemporary public debates.

And Aristotle does not stand alone: his political analysis

leads first to the republicanism of Cicero and then through the

centuries through such diverse forms as the Florentine republics

led by Renaissance civic humanists and, at the same time, the

goal-centered strategies of Machiavelli; it can be found permeat-

ing medieval defenses of monarchs and in the Enlightenment expla-

nations of the social contract. Melded with the mysteries of

Christianity, he first enables Boethius to explain why good men

suffer and why they should enjoy it; later, in the hands of the

Scholastics, he facilitates a new level of absolutism in distin-

guishing right and wrong: without him, Dante never could have

placed his favorite teacher, Bruno Latini, so lovingly in hell.

Aristotle also made a claim about the relationship between

knowledge and action that in itself has acquired mythic status:

while he claimed only that knowing the good was the path to doing

good habitually through the use of the intellect, his Christian-

ized successors, having rejected Hesoidic randomness in favor of

the purposeful creation of Genesis, concretized that relationship

into an absolute imperative; knowing the good demands doing the

good, and anything less is sinful. Dante's damned, having "lost

the good of their intellect," are given their place in his hell-

ish hierarchy proportional to the magnitude of the discrepancy

between their power to know and their acts contrary to that

knowledge.

While Enlightenment thinkers eventually rejected the

metaphysical structures development from these premises, they

continued to insist on this relationship between knowledge and

virtuous action, its necessary consequent, as is evident in the

optimism of a Condorcet who postulates that societal amelioration

is solely a function of the progress of the human mind.

While Aristotle acknowledged the basic patterns of behavior

first identified and exploited by the sophists, their insights

came to be obscured and thus that mythic correlation between

knowledge and virtuous action shapes much of our thinking today:

one need only note the increasing number of negligence suits to

see its pervasiveness. Moreover, that same Aristotelian linkage

because it underlies Aristotle's concept of the natural master

and the natural slave, eventually comes to shape profoundly the

original ideals of our representative form of government, trans-

mitted through the Enlightenment to our Founding Fathers who

limit the franchise on that premise. And it drives the uncritical

deference we pay to "scientists," "experts," and "professionals"

whose knowledge we are predisposed to treat as virtuous, with

consequences we too often recognize only after the fact.

In short, because of our epistemological dependence upon

Aristotle, partly merited but equally if not more a consequence

of the technology it produced, Aristotle is hard to challenge.

And while I would not dismiss him, I would have Liberal Arts

faculty bring both future journalists and their audience to

acknowledge and appreciate what Aristotle himself said in his

Nichomachean Ethics:

Now fine and just actions, which political science

investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation

of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only

by convention, and not by nature. ...We must be content,

then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises

to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in

speaking about such things which are only for the most part

true and with premises of the same kind to reach

conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit,

therefore, should each type of statement be received;

for it is the mark of an educated man to look for

precision in each class of things just so far as the

nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally

foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician

and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. (I.3)

It lies within the power of Liberal Arts faculty to insist upon

such critical distinctions as they inquire into the matter of

their disciplines, calling attention to how such distinctions

have been blurred over time, and how that blurring can produce a

pernicious righteousness, a tyrannical absolutism, and a false

sense of self-confidence that closes the minds of both journal-

ists and their audiences to the contingency of events and thus

stifles, still-born, that public debate to which both the

journalist and the citizen claim as their civic right and respon-

sibility.

And I would have those responsible for the Liberal Arts

curricula go one step further: I would have them promote their

students' participation in a study of modern mathematics and

science that prepares them for an equally critical evaluation of

that set of "truths," understanding, at least in principle, that

what Poincare did for mathematics, Einstein for physics, and

Godel for all axiomatic systems was to move them closer to the

status of Aristotle's arguments about ethics. Only with such

insights can they free themselves from the tyrannical modern myth

of science and use it effectively.

Myth, rhetoric, and Aristotelian absolutism all come togeth-

er in our competing, conflicting, and complementary visions of

what society is and should be, the common concern of both jour-

nalists and their audience. I am struck by the fact that, virtu-

ally without exception, everything we read in this three-semester

curriculum ultimately gives voice to some such vision and each

such vision admits of critical analysis; I am more struck by the

fact that students who have learned to analyze critically such

visions can transfer that analysis to contemporary fiction

(recognizing both the mythmaking power and the underlying prem-

ises of a Louis L'Amour) and to news stories about the Persian

Gulf, seeing how the rhetorical strategies of the Pentagon ex-

ploit both the myths of war and an absolutist sense of

right and wrong.

And they can do more: they begin to recognize the mythic

appeals inherent in advertising, to understand the essence (and

the limits) of the TV sound bite and the journalistic quote. My

students cannot but engage in an on-going reassessment about

their own vision of society, having seen how the societal vision

of Homer and Hesiod is transformed by Pericles and Thucydides as

they create, for their rhetorical purposes, a new myth of Athens,

having seen how further transformations take place as Cicero and

Caesar each struggle for Roman supremacy, and then how first

Virgil and then Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante, with increasing

absolutism, insist on an increasingly higher end for society or

at least elite parts of it. Their idealism is not destroyed as

they come to see first how those visions find new justifications

in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, and then how they are

voiced in the ideals of our Declaration of Independence and

Constitution, while at the same time inalienable rights continue

to end, here in the Southwest, at the Rio Grande, rather, this

defines for them the challenges they must meet in actualizing

that idealism in a society that still uses every tool in the

Sophists' repertoire.

For the journalism student, this type of liberal education

in ethics provides a critical understanding of where the

canonical ideals of the profession came from and the problems

inherent in their implementation. More importantly, I suggest

that it challenges students to work through those problems for

themselves, coming to solutions that they can live with and yet

keeping them open to the eventual appearance of further problems

in the solutions they have thought to have in hand. It is an

education that is intentionally disquieting, because it refuses

to offer a set and immutable solution, but it alone, I suggest,

is conducive to ethical growth, promoting just those habits of

mind so important to the historical Aristotle but pushed into the

background by his successors. At the same time, non-journalism

students are better prepared to assume their ethical

responsibilities in the public debate mediated by the journalist

in much the same way, breaking their unconscious habits of easy

dependence on and facile rejection of the news, and replacing

them with an awareness of the complex contingency that shapes

each mediated report and giving them more means to sort out the

contingent from the necessary. That is the ethical training we in

the Liberal Arts can and must give all our students.