Intellectual history is the distinctive quality of John Merrill's work. Philosophy was his bread-and-butter. Journalism, as an applied art, is what he usually taught, but it was always informed by and focused on philosophy. From his graduate student days in philosophy and his early book with Jack Odell, Philosophy and Journalism, straight through without fail, philosophical reflection drove his problematizing and conclusions. He quoted more philosophers over his lifetime than perhaps the rest of us in journalism scholarship put together. From the classics of the mainstream West in Aristotle, Mill, and Kant, to ancients in China and India, and modernists in Hegel's tradition, John Merrill understood philosophers and insisted that journalists, students, and teachers engage them.
In his Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundation for News Media (1997), he summarized his life-long task as teacher and writer this way: "Instead of focusing on the daily routine of journalism, [this book] focuses on the philosophical and theoretical foundations that support that daily routine" (p. xiv). From Merrill's perspective, unless the great thinkers of the ages are taken seriously, no sophisticated conclusions are possible today. This is philosophical personalism, that is, individuals enrich their minds and push themselves to intellectual maturity through ideas, and in the process they become more competent professionals. Theoretical knowledge was sine qua non for him, without which daily practice is pedestrian and gullible.
Philosophy and Journalism(1983) describes the crucial topics in moral philosophy—act utilitarianism, ethical egoism, deontological ethics, axiology, for example—contending throughout that when these fundamental ideas are understood, discussions over codes of ethics or newsgathering policies are deeper and we avoid repeating the mistakes of history. Fallacies and faulty logic can be overcome when we know philosophical reasoning. The debates over press freedom are illuminated by 18th century thinkers who worked day and night to resolve the dichotomy between individual liberty and the moral order. Knowing that the truth and its variants are central to journalism, Merrill (with Odel), makes philosophical clarifications of truth paramount.
Given John Merrill's special interest in media ethics, his appeal to its basis in moral philosophy makes sense. His immense impact on journalism ethics is recognized nationally and internationally, specifically his commitment to ethical theory. Journalism ethics consisted of stories and heroes when he entered it, and over his lifetime he encouraged and witnessed a dramatic shift to normative ethics. Philosopher Merrill recognized this growth when proposing the book Ethical Communication: Moral Stances in Human Dialogue (2009), but fretted that "the postmodern world of shifting norms and displeasure with the idea of objectivity" (p. 1) was eroding the moral perspective in journalism. "Rather than give up on moral thinking in our day of relativism, the profiles of moral thinkers within this book challenge us to take seriously the abundance of good ideas in ethics that the human race provides us" (p. 1).
The teacher in John Merrill insisted that every chapter include an application to media policies and practice to help students learn how philosophy is relevant. In organizing the book project, he insisted that other scholars take the classical thinkers he himself knew and wrote about elsewhere—Aristotle, Kant, Plato, Mill, Locke, Nietzsche, and Hobbes. Then with his own astonishing breadth and unlimited curiosity he wrote chapters on the Dalai Lama, Kautilya of 4th century B.C. India, and on Ayn Rand. Merrill holds them and the book together by his belief that "comparison and difference are productive learning tools" for engaging "the foundations of morality" (p. 2).
While we readily understand his insistence on knowing the philosophical foundations of media ethics, John Merrill was the distinctive voice of his generation for philosophy über alles. In his perspective, theoretical work is essential—across the board. For Merrill, investigative reporters and management and feature writers are ineffective if they are not philosophically informed.
His legacy of wisdom: great thinkers and journalism (1994) addresses the journalism enterprise as a whole. This is how he states the book's purpose in the Prologue: "From out of the intellectual mists of antiquity come the voices of provocative thinkers, their words—if listened to—capable of instilling in journalists a host of foundational concepts valuable to their thought and work" (p. ix). In his essays on 30 philosophers, social theorists, and literati in this book, Merrill shows that theories are not arid abstractions, but the catalysts for good thinking. They are pedagogically meaningful, enabling critical reflection to take place inside both the classroom and the newsroom. Theories are especially valuable, as Merrill sees it, for examining our beliefs and presuppositions about the world.
John Merrill the philosopher defended his classical liberal view of the press by appealing to Locke's concept of "individual liberty," Milton's "free expression," and Mill's "no harm to the innocent." He argued that one assesses public journalism, not in terms of its efficacy and audience, but by examining its philosophical roots. Likewise his appeal to philosophy when contending against my own communitarian approach. He read my work on it, and he welcomed me to his graduate classes to teach it. Students were required to read the communitarian literature in advance and copiously. But his considered conclusions were negative, uncompromisingly so. True to his philosophical form, he argued theory. He went after communitarianism's roots, as he saw them, in Rousseau, Hegel, Hume, and the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. And I responded positively to his deep analysis, though it was difficult to counter satisfactorily. Amitai Etzioni's communitarian network is programmatic and sociological in orientation, and objections are typically raised in terms of this neo-liberal strategy. John Merrill understood philosophical communitarianism as it should be, a theory of democracy rooted in the common good instead of individual autonomy. Merrill warrants the ultimate accolade in academia, that is, intellectually valid criticism that teaches the errant author.
John Merrill, the astute philosopher, demonstrated over a lifetime that there are permanent issues thatnever disappear from the human agenda. He showed us how to participate in the ongoing struggles ofintellectual life, quarreling often with their European formulation, but never dismissing them to the margins. Theorists, therefore, were not abstract authorities for him, but they empowered Merrill to himself theorize—amiably or rebelliously—as circumstances demanded it. He was the master among us in moving beyond the classics without forgetting them. He recognized that the fundamental concepts of journalism theory and practice in democratic life probably will not be resolved before humankind expires as a species—and he zestfully looked forward to the discussion.