Don Corrigan

(Aparecido en St. Louis Journalism Review).

John C. Merrill, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, easily the most prolific author on the topic of press freedom and its many adversaries, has written a rather gloomy treatise. Joined by professors Peter J. Gade and Frederick R. Blevens, Merrill argues that the sun is setting on the kind of libertarian press freedom that has produced America's best-as well as some of its worst-journalism.
Merrill's book, "Twilight of Press Freedom: The Rise of People's Journalism," contends that public (or civic) journalists are gaining ground on journalism traditionalists. Their ideas are triumphing: Objectivity is yielding to the subjectivity of solution-oriented journalism; journalistic detachment is giving way to community engagement; and the individualistic expression of maverick reporters is giving way to the consensus pabulum of the team.
All of this alarm might sound a bit odd to the observer of journalism in St. Louis. After all, the once high priest of public journalism at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cole Campbell, has been sent packing; Campbell's successor, editor Ellen Soeteber, has been about the task of dismantling many of Campbell's odd journalistic assemblies; and the centerpiece of public journalism at the Post, "Imagine St. Louis," has been dispatched to the trash heap of local journalism history.
At the national level, the idea of public journalism also appears to be foundering. Friends of public journalism guru Jay Rosen report that he has now transferred his attention from public journalism to something he calls "public scholarship." The Pew Center has withdrawn its support from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism after 10 years and millions of dollars of much-heralded assistance for public (civic) journalism projects.
In a sort of swan song column in the Pew Center's quarterly publication, "Civic Catalyst," Executive Director Jan Schaffer announced the center's imminent demise and praised "those who have been in the vanguard of this grand effort." She also called upon public journalism converts to document the legacy: "We invite, reporters, editors, news directors and professors to tell us how civic (public) journalism has changed their jobs and professional vision."
Schaffer's blowing taps and her call for the troops to fade back-and to begin the task of chronicling their "grand effort"-hardly seems like a note of triumph. What's more, her call to record the legacy is completely redundant. The public journalists have always spent more time telling us about their "grand efforts," than actually performing and completing any noble experiments in journalism.
All this considered, it seems a bit odd for Merrill to be declaring victory for the public journalists and their allies, the communitarian philosophers in our nation's journalism schools. Everette Dennis, who writes an otherwise laudatory foreword for "Twilight of Press Freedom," chides Merrill for giving too much ground to the public journalists and for being all too pessimistic about the future of journalism.
Perhaps Merrill can be forgiven on this score, because he is surrounded by so many academics at his University of Missouri School of Journalism, who have embraced public journalism. But outside of some j-school classrooms and a handful of mid-sized newspapers around the country, public journalism is an idea that has lost currency. It is flagging, in part, because of the willingness of Merrill and others in journalism to be brutally honest about the tiresome hype, the "scholarly" seminars and the mercenary grantsmanship that have characterized the decade-old public journalism movement.
Philosophical roots
If one can overlook Merrill and his colleagues' premature declaration of the demise of real journalism in favor of "people's journalism," there is plenty to recommend in this book. Much of the first half of the book is about ideas, about the philosophers behind the libertarian press view, and those opposing philosophers who advocate a press of the people, the community and the state.
The first half of the book harkens back to Merrill's 1994 examination, "Legacy of Wisdom: Great Thinkers And Journalism." Merrill, of course, is most favorably disposed to the spirits of The Enlightenment-John Milton, John Locke, Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire and John Stuart Mill. These philosophers, among others, professed that the ultimate goal of the state is to make men free to develop their skills of reasoning and intellectual abilities.
Milton, Locke, Voltaire and Mill valued liberty both as an end and as a means. If this liberty in practice was chaotic and sometimes a detriment to the social order, then so be it. They believed that freedom to think and speak as individuals are a means indispensible to the discovery and spread of political truth.
Those who drafted and adopted the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights in 1787 were well aware of the teachings and ideologies of philosophers like Milton, Locke, Voltaire and Mill. Merrill describes the 18th Century American voices of Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and Madison as intellectuals who gave a governmental form and structure to the philosophical ideas enunciated by Milton, Locke, Voltaire and Mill. It is, therefore, no fluke at all that the First Amendment guarantee comes first in the Bill of Rights.
In contrast to Milton, Locke, Voltaire and Mill, author Merrill outlines the ideas of late 18th and 19th Century philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Karl Marx. And he makes the case that these are the natural forerunners of many of today's communitarian thinkers who are attracted to people's journalism, public journalism or civic journalism.
According to Merrill,the bright sun of expressive freedom that prevailed to a considerable degree because of the 18th Century philosophers is now setting. The days of personal freedom are at an end. The communitarian philosophers and the journalists for community are putting an end to that frenzy. Merrill contends that many reasons exist for the communitarians' denunciation of the libertarian stance, primarily because they feel the libertarian press approach:
Depreciates the rights, needs and wishes of others.
Harms a sense of belonging, of association, of community.
Develops into an egotistical, narcissistic, arrogant journalism.
Militates against order, comfort and social stability.
Causes alienation, anxiety, ennui and a sense of purposeless.
Impact of public journalism
In order to address these many ill effects of traditional, libertarian press practice, the public journalists initiated a movement of ideas and experiments in the early 1990s. The second half of "Twilight of Press Freedom" focuses on the impact of this movement.
What Merrill and his colleagues uncover may explain the pessimism that seems to pervade the book. For even though public journalism as an organized and coherent movement may be waning, the concepts and experiments have opened the door to some harmful journalistic policies and newsroom practices.
Just a few examples:
Public journalism has encouraged the idea that reporters have an obligation to be more than storytellers, they should be community organizers. Detachment and objectivity are out the window. Editors and reporters must convene the community and determine the citizens' agenda. The press must then articulate and act upon this agenda.
Public journalism has put a stamp of approval on foundation money entering the newsroom to finance reporting projects. Public journalism's defenders argue that no one should object to project funding that seeks to revitalize an anemic democracy. Whether public journalism projects are all benign is questionable; whether foundation money should be altering editorial product is not debatable. It constitutes a terrible precedent.
Merrill notes a particular irony in his book that before Jan Schaffer took the reins of the Pew Center for Public Journalism, she herself took aim at the less benign aspects of influential foundations. As a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, she oversaw a series on the abuses of multi-million-dollar non-profits. The series, entitled the "Shadow Economy," was a Pulitzer finalist and was turned into the book, "Warehouses of Wealth."
Public journalism advocates and their communitarian allies deride the traditional press's "obsession" with First Amendment rights. They argue that too much emphasis has been placed on rights and not enough on responsibility. They argue that the public has lost patience with all "the noise" about the First Amendment, and can only be won back when the press fulfills its obligation to convening community and reviving democracy.
Poppycock. The framers of the Constitution never suggested that the press had to earn its First Amendment privilege. The First Amendment ideal is to protect both responsible and irresponsible expression.
One of the most vital periods of democratic dialogue in this country came in the decades following adoption of the Constitution. It was an era of a rowdy, arrogant, scandalous, and at times, a seditious press. It was a time devoid of public journalism scolds, who today collect their foundation money, assemble their scholarly seminars and wag their pedantic fingers.