Media Ethics magazine had no new Book Reviews for Fall 2017. Below is a re-posting of our Spring 2016 collection



Pickard, Victor (2015), America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform. (New York: Cambridge University Press). xi+247 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-69475-0. $29.99 (paper). (Footnotes with citations, bibliography of primary sources, index).

American media have always had to contend with strong critics whose analysis called into question many aspects of the media and their economic and social justifications and organization. Some supported the media in which they then operated, but looked for incremental improvement, some thought that nothing less drastic than a fresh start would suffice.  

These critics and essayists tended to agree with—and deplore the truth of—A. J. Liebling’s aphorism: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Many of them—who tended to use the content of the media to illustrate the political and philosophical positions they held about the organization, ownership and general practices of media rather than serve as reviewers of that content—argued their points in the public forums of arts and letters. One might even claim that some of the content of the 2016 “Best Picture” Motion Picture Academy Award-winning film Spotlight was in this tradition (as was All the President’s Men in an earlier year)—but the writings of “muckraking” individuals such as Upton Sinclair, A. J. Liebling, H. L. Mencken and later practitioners such as Ken Auletta are better examples when dealing with the thoughtful public (which, of course, might include  media professionals) that may exist today. 

So, much is part of our generally accepted knowledge of the field, and sufficient reason to consider working in the news media as a profession. But, at the same time, there has been a much less-well-known academic tradition. Some might hold that Dallas Smythe (former chief economist of the FCC, and a distinguished professor of communications and economic policy in both the U. S. and Canada) was the mentor for a large battalion—well, a medium-sized platoon—of academic critics of the media. Nearly a half-century ago, when Dean George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania  organized a truly major conference on the political economy of the mass media (paid for by the unlikely team of the Communication Workers of America union and the American Telephone & Telegraph Company), some of the hundreds present thought of it as a meeting of the “Dallas Smythe Alumni Association.” (Smythe, himself, newly returned from a trip to China—more-or-less off limits to American scholars at the time, but Smythe was then a Canadian—arrived in time to enjoy the ideas and people who were in attendance). 

Today, scholars such as Bob McChesney, John Narone, John Nichols, and Dan Schiller are among the best known in this field, but Victor Pickard is coming up fast.

(NOTE: Many of the individuals mentioned here earned their doctorates in the Institute of Communications Research or elsewhere in the University of Illinois, including McChesney, Pickard, and the author of this review. The “Acknowledgements” at the front of the volume being reviewed constitute something of a Who’s Who of the field.)

Pickard co-authored (with McChesney) Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights? and has contributed thoughtfully to most of the appropriate scholarly publications, as well as writing op-ed columns here and abroad. 

With this background, one might think that America’s Battle for Media Democracy was a manifesto or a polemic—but that is not what one will find when reading the book. It actually is a carefully researched and carefully reasoned historical study of the structure and practices of American media and the political and economic forces that shaped them—going back to the roots of policy decisions that have created what we now enjoy/suffer/possess in the way of communications technology in our homes, businesses, social life, and wherever else ubiquitous gadgetry allows us to interact with the rest of the world. 

To properly describe all of the ideas in this book is not the function of this review. Rather, it is to provide an overview of one of the more interesting books in one of the most interesting traditions published in the past few years, one that offers its readers the opportunity to think through what they might want—or might expect—of the media of the future. In other words: What might have been?

Pickard has chosen to focus on the 1940s (“a decade of transition and reform” as well as war) for this book. Although some might argue that the media system of today can be described in the invention, innovation, improvement, and application of new technologies, Pickard doesn’t take this easy (insofar as source literature is concerned) way out. His interest in political and economic  policy also eschews going back to earlier examples, perhaps to the role of government in supporting experimentation and implementation as far back as the establishment of the postal service or the telegraph industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, or the first laws early in the 20th century that made tentative motions toward requiring the radio priority of lives and property (particularly, ships at sea in distress), or the arguments over advertising over the air (and the subsequent control of network broadcast programming by advertising agencies) in the late 1920s and beyond. Pickard makes his case, because his primary interests are the roles and functions of media content and control (rather than the technologies and the details of entertainment, information and persuasive content) in shaping and otherwise affecting our society.

The eight-page introduction (“The Policy Origins and Normative Foundations of American Media”) should be read by everyone—policy makers and policy wonks at all levels, politicians, regulators, media owners and workers, audience members, scholars—and used as a road map for the remainder of the book.

There are only eight chapters: “The Revolt against Radio”; “A Progressive Turn at the FCC”; “The Battle of the ‘Blue Book’”; “The Origins of the Fairness Doctrine”; “The 1940s Newspaper Crisis and the Birth of the Hutchins Commission”; “Should the Giants Be Slain or Persuaded to be Good?”; “The Postwar Settlement for American Media”; and a 20-page conclusion, “Confronting Market Failure.”

Whether or not the reader agrees with Pickard’s conclusion that the “market” in the communications industries (particularly the telecommunications industries) has failed, it certainly has not substantially enhanced “the public interest, convenience and necessity,” to use words from the Communications Act of 1934. 

But, perhaps, maybe, possibly, if more people read Pickard’s (and others’) works dealing with the political economy of communication, the more likely it will be that, a generation from now, some of the problems caused by earlier failures to construct and articulate public policy will have been fixed.



POWER OF IDEALSPOWER OF IDEALSDamon, William & Colby, Anne (2015), The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice. (New York: Oxford University Press. 217 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-935774-1. $29.95 (hardback). (Chapter notes, index). 

Twenty-three years ago, husband-and-wife team William Damon and Anne Colby wrote Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment (The Free Press, 1992) about what it meant to be a “moral exemplar” at that time. Collaborating once again, they have recently published The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice for which they have selected six historical (rather than contemporary) moral icons as examples of ethical commitment.

It seems clear that the authors are not only upholding historical role models and examining the nature of moral commitment but also are critiquing and countering what they assert to be the “scientific” claims that moral behavior is primarily biological, economic, and cultural in origin, thus determined by forces beyond one’s control and relative to one’s context. With their longstanding credentials at Stanford and Harvard, Damon and Colby clearly are also continuing an academic conversation—if not debate—within the fields of moral psychology, education, and ethics about whether our human morals are motivated more by ideals and conscious choice or by, as determinists proffer, the more subconscious nature of our “programming”:  genes, economic incentives, and cultural ancestors.

For those engaged by ethics—and similar topics such as moral philosophy and moral psychology—this is an important book because it augments the mountain of research Damon, Colby (and colleagues such as Howard Gardner) have conducted assessing the motivation and character of moral conduct, especially within Western cultures. Damon and Colby do not attack the ascendant scientific paradigm in an emotional, opinion-driven way. Rather they skillfully question the scientific methods, techniques, samples, and scope of such post-Skinnerian research and show that the work is insufficiently comprehensive.  

They question whether findings from the “new science” are “adequate, or even accurate.” Moreover, both wonder whether the endless hypothetical “trolley” questions (“what would you do in such-and-such a situation”), such as those used by psychologist Joshua Greene at Harvard, are too abstract—they call them “academic games”—and hypothetical to accurately characterize the types of ongoing moral decisions one must make in daily experience.

For that reason Colby and Damon chose twenty-three living people for Some Do Care and six historical exemplars—Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Jane Addams, Dag Hammarskjold,  Abraham Heschel, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—for The Power of Ideals to provide evidence of unflagging moral commitment driven by conscious choice and unbroken ideals.

Within their examination of these “exemplar” lives, the co-authors select for and expand upon three key overlapped traits—truth, humility, and faith—which potentially provide the driving force for all six moral icons. Examining the three traits in depth, Damon and Colby show both similarities and differences in how these six lives were influenced by, for example, faith. Three of the exemplars were propelled by a more mystical transcendent faith while the other three were only somewhat influenced, not captivated, by religious ethics and background.

To the authors these three traits—truth, humility, and faith—are not islands unto themselves.  For example, humility catalyzes open-mindedness, a key condition for making discoveries and avoiding authoritarian dogmatism. In many documented cases faith has bolstered “patience, strength, serenity, hope and courage.” And truth points toward stability in society. Indeed, looking at the other end, “entrenched dishonesty can destroy a democratic [or other] system.” Obviously, these assertions need discussion.

Hence, the authors celebrate these three interlocking “virtues” in the tradition of virtue ethics but do not value any one of them in isolation. For example, faith without humility and truth can lead to dictatorial tyranny.

Ultimately, Colby and Damon wish to save us from a world view in which moral action is triggered only by “biological impulses and social pressures.” To their view this perspective, perhaps best fostered by “new science” thinker Jonathan Haidt, seems “narrow, reductionist, and bleakly cynical.” Their counter-balancing reading of moral (cf. ethical) action is not  sentimental, but informed by their own decades of mastering the literature of their field (Piaget, Kohlberg, etc.), citing key studies,  and creating a celebrated literature of their own spanning four decades. 

Colby and Damon are not content to be dismissive of the “new science” but rather to reveal it as partial in both senses of that word. They write:    

…moral commitment …can’t be explained by a science that reduces morality to

biological impulses, situational pressures, or economic self-interest. All these

forces may come into play, but in the end, a moral life is guided by the nature and

power of a person’s ideals.  

The authors back up their advocacy of a “comprehensive moral psychology” by analysis and allusions to key research. Their work is a refreshing alternative to an atmosphere that would seek to make moral commitment and ethical behavior only the by-product of evolution or veiled self-interest.

It seems likely to this writer that Mandela’s moral persistence, despite decades in prison, and Bonhoeffer’s moral passion, during his years in prison and a Nazi concentration camp, were fueled by something other than economic incentive or cultural imprinting. Clearly they were also powered by a strong sense of purpose and moral conviction.

While one might side with Levi-Strauss in understanding that there are always underlying cultural structures, one must also side with Leo Strauss in saying that one cannot overlook either the obvious or common sense.




Gene Foreman (2016), The Ethical Journalist. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell). xxi+396 pp.  ISBN 978-1-119-03173-4. $59.95 (paper, also available as e-book). (Glossary, index, chapter notes, case studies, points of view).

This new edition of Gene Foreman’s popular and useful approach to the essence of journalistic ethical decision-making has moved with the times, although it is within a few pages as long as the first (2010) edition, and has a very similar chapter lineup. The first edition used “Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News” as its subtitle, the second edition uses “Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age”—but you won’t find it on the spine of the book—and the cover illustration of the first edition shows an abstract book/files while the second edition uses a very realistic laptop for its illustration.

The Ethical Journalist covers much of the same territory as a more traditional “ethics text” but it concentrates on how these concepts impact the journalists in the trenches, rather than media owners, audience, or others. This approach might well be of greater use to practitioners, particularly those new to the profession. Because the content of Foreman’s book is familiar to most of those who might wish to use this new edition in the future, the list of chapter titles below is for the benefit of those who may not yet have already familiarized themselves with that content.

As before, the book is in two parts: “A Foundation for Making Ethical Decisions” and a twice-as-long “Exploring Theses of Ethics Issues in Journalism.” The eight chapters in the first part are labeled “Why Ethics Matters in Journalism,” “Ethics, the Bedrock of a Society,” “The News Media’s Role in Society,” “For Journalists, a Clash of Moral Duties,” “The Public and the Media: Love and Hate,” “Applying Four Classic Theories of Ethics,” “Using a Code of Ethics as a Decision Tool,” and “Making Moral Decisions you can Defend.” The dozen chapters in the second part include: “Stolen Words, Invented Facts…or Worse,” “Conflicts of Interest: Appearances Count,” “The Business of Producing Journalism,” “Getting the Story Right and Being Fair,” “Dealing with Sources of Information,” “Making News Decisions about Privacy,” “Making News Decisions about Taste,” “Deception, a Controversial Reporting Tool,” “Covering a Diverse, Multicultural Society,” “Ethics Issues Specific to Digital Journalism,” “Ethics Issues Specific to Visual Journalism,” and “Some Thoughts to Take with You.”

Twelve of the 20 chapters also have one (or occasionally two) “points of view” provided by some 15 authors, including Jane Singer, Ed Wasserman and Michael Josephson. Additionally, there are as many as four documented “case studies”—printed on easy-to-find light gray backgrounds—provided to help the reader think about the content of 13 of the 20 chapters.(Only four chapters have neither of these teaching/learning aids).

This volume should be on the short list whenever a new textbook devoted to journalism ethics is being considered.



STRANGERS DROWNINGSTRANGERS DROWNING MacFarquhar, Larissa (2015), Strangers Drowning. (New York: Penguin Press). 320 pp. ISBN 978-1-59420-433-3. $27.95 (cloth). (Bibliography).

What would you do if you had to choose between saving either your mother or two strangers from drowning? New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar has written a book that presents actual cases that provide variations upon the “strangers drowning” hypothetical ethical situation.    

In essence, the author has adapted the classic “whom would you save?” questions asked in ethics classes into variant situations posing similar conflicting loyalties to family and strangers. For example, there is the case of a minister who puts her family in harm’s way in distant lands and then, upon return, donates a kidney just when the family is taking a breath of relief. Or a couple who adopt 20 children must weigh the needs of those whom they have adopted against the needs of their own biological offspring. Another couple establishes a leprosy colony against the odds their own small children will be eaten by wild animals or become victims of the very disease whose ravages they are trying to relieve. 

MacFarquhar not only navigates us through many such “conflicting duties” cases but also poses important ethical questions about the nature and limits of self-sacrifice, the utilitarian valuing of numbers (two vs. one? or twenty vs. two? or beyond?), the motives behind doing (too much?) good,  and why society is suspicious of extreme “do-gooders.” In each case the subjects must weigh the value of serving others against the possibility of harming kith and kin, not to mention taking into account the “wild card” variable of unforeseen consequences.

These real cases prove morally complex. For example, although initially all of the kidney donors seem fulfilled by “doing good” or “making a difference,” one donor later discovers that the person to whom he donated a kidney had rejected it, another fully alienates his partner, and yet another receives a harassing phone call from the parent of a dying child asking why that child was not chosen to receive the kidney. How do we decide who among the dying deserves the organ? Or do we leave the decision to unseen authorities, a type of lottery, or the marketplace

Although the book is not about media ethics in the narrowest sense, one can easily think of media-related cases where similar dilemmas would occur. Think of the journalist who wishes to be a war correspondent but is conflicted about either putting his family in harm’s way or abandoning themwhile placing himself at risk. Imagine the married documentary film-maker who wishes to expose secret plans of the CIA, the Taliban, or the mafia. Death threats, assassinations and kidnappings resulting from such actions are not unknown. Then there are the “anything for art” directors who, in order to achieve the “perfect shot,” expose their cast, crew, and stuntmen to substantial safety hazards, frostbite, or disease.

To the media artist, the strangers she serves are the “posterity” to whom she “owes” a masterpiece, at least in her mind. And to the journalist or documentarian, the public is owed the “truth” as best it may be revealed. But what might be the cost to these communicators, their families, their colleagues and their employees?

Although MacFarquhar’s book seems written for a larger “PBS/NPR-type” public, it is laced with academic references, the moral positions of classical ethicists such as Kant and Mill, and the multidisciplinary citations which exhibit a disciplined mind making insightful “across-the-boundaries” connections.

The author does not gloss over ethical ambiguities. She does suggest that changing technologies and attitudes might lead us as a society to new stances toward moral choices. For example, she cites Princeton ethicist Peter Singer’s describing a kidney donation from parent to child as “heroic” 25 years ago. And yet today it could seem morally questionable for a parent not to donate a kidney—due partly to improvements in procedures and the widespread practice of transplants. Should not our moral judgments take into account these changing conditions?

While the author does not take an absolute stand, it seems clear that, for her, morality is somewhat situational and subject to practical concerns such as the degree of risk rather than, say, those religious concerns which would deem self-harm or surgical “invasiveness” a “sin.” As such this book can be described as both a secular and “liberal” text open to, if not honoring, any number of reasonable perspectives, moral nuances, and personal choices.

Although aimed at the educated public, Strangers Drowning is also an engaging classroom text, since it marries compelling cases to prolonged ethical analysis. Indeed, it seemed significant to me that last fall the book was sold out both in the general and the textbook sections of the bookstore at Stanford University, where it was required reading for many courses.

After completing this book, you may not have changed your answer to the primary “how should you choose” question (two strangers? one mother?). Or, if you were initially undecided about the answer, you still may not have solved the dilemma. But it is likely you will have done  a lot of thinking—about moral choice, about changing values in society, about your own motives for “doing good,” and about whether the Quixotic quest to save society through noble deeds is attainable—or merely an abortive attempt at purging guilt.   

So, are we “do-gooders” aligned with a hero like Schindler by saving lives? Or with the Man of La Mancha by alienating our family, friends, and doctors while tilting with imaginary windmills?  MacFarquhar may not have provided “the answer,” but she has provided important questions worth pondering in far greater depth—questions which matter and which have practical implications of consequence.




W. Joseph Campbell (2010). Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism.  (Berkeley: University of California Press). xiii + 269 pp. ISBN 978-0-520-26209-6. $ 28.95 (paper, also available in cloth and as e-book). (Notes, select bibliography, index). (New paperback edition scheduled for publication August 2016).

Although it is enjoyable to think of using this book as a text, for most it probably will do better service as a reference that journalism faculty can use when students show signs of believing that the industries they hope to become part of always “get it right.” It also can be very useful to reporters and editors so wrapped up in a story that they overlook the possibility that their original premises—or later conclusions—are incorrect.

The ten stories described and analyzed here are thoroughly researched and documented, as evidenced by 54 pages of notes at the end of the volume. It is certainly not a “he said, she said” account of the selected stories. Most of these stories are from modern (post-World War II, at any rate) times, although the first two go back to the 1890s and 1938, respectively. Most of these cases received the attention of a wide portion of the American public, although a couple of them (dealing with “bra burning” and “crack-babies”) probably didn’t rise to the necessary level of importance for many readers, viewers and listeners to devour the story.

The stories—each occupying a chapter—are: “‘I’ll Furnish the War’: The Making of a Media Myth” (William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-American War); “Fright beyond Measure?’ The Myth of The War of the Worlds”[broadcast]; “[Edward R.] Murrow vs [Senator Joe] McCarthy: Timing Makes the Myth”; “The Bay of Pigs—New York Times Suppression Myth”;  “Debunking the ‘Cronkite Moment’” [that supposedly ended the Vietnam War]; “The Nuanced Myth: Bra Burning at Atlantic City”; “It’s All about the Media: Watergate’s Heroic Journalism Myth”; “The ‘Fantasy Panic’: The News Media and the Crack-Baby Myth”; “’She Was Fighting to the Death’: Mythmaking in Iraq”; “Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of Superlative Reporting.” 

Campbell also supplies a succinct “conclusion” that can stand on its own as something of value to all those who cover “the news” and those who watch, listen or read it.