International journalism scholar Merrill
teaches Winter Term course
"There are no countries with press freedom," declares John Merrill. "All have
controls of some sort on the press. In so-called 'free' nations such as the
United States, our press is operated by businesses with a boss and a board or
someone who is going to control this medium."
Merrill, one of the nation's most renowned media ethicists and international
journalism scholars, spent January in North Carolina as a visiting professor in
the School of Communications for winter term, teaching a course titled Global
Press Freedom. He spoke to a gathering of communications, philosophy and
international studies faculty members during the final days of his visit.
Merrill has visited nearly 70 nations, some of them as many as five or six times.
"Everywhere I have traveled, I have always been conscious of the fact that they
didn't have a free press, and some of the people didn't even want a press. Many
people in the world are simply concerned about feeding themselves every day."
Even the United States, he said, is not a democracy. "You won't find democracy in
the Constitution, and the founders did that for a reason; not everyone is up to
the job of deciding what our policies should be," he said. "Theoretically, the
people in Washington should be, and I'm going to count on them. What we have here
is a meritocracy. I'm not the great democrat. Go back to Plato. He saw what
happened to his mentor Socrates in that so-called democracy in Athens."
Merrill discounted the value of what is being called "Civic Journalism," the
movement by some news organizations to encourage public input in news content. "I
think it's stupid," he said. "We need achievers who are knowledgeable in charge
of every aspect of our society."
When asked about coverage of the conflict with terrorists and the war in
Afghanistan, Merrill found fault with content choices being made by U.S. media
organizations. "The media sort of emphasizes the rights of the terrorists and
negates the goal we have of ridding the world of these people. Why should the
media be exacerbating the situation by stirring the pot all the time? ... On the
other hand, the press plays a positive role in giving attention to areas that no
one else will look at. I may sound as if I am anti-press, but I'm not; I'm
anti-everything," he added with a grin.
When asked about journalism and ethics, he said he thinks that the guru of ethics
for media companies in the U.S. is Machiavelli.
"You follow the path you see as ethical," he explained. "Most journalists start
out with Kantian-type rules such as, 'Tell the truth.' Most of the world's media
leaders are Machiavellian; they do what they need to do to succeed. I guess I'm
not being a very positive person, but we're all sinful people. We're
Merrill is the author or editor of 30 books, the most recent being "Twilight of
Press Freedom." He earned degrees in philosophy, history and English and a Ph.D.
in mass communication from the University of Iowa.
He is professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and taught for extended
terms in Cairo and Taipei. He and School of Communications Dean Paul Parsons were
colleagues when they were both visiting professors in Singapore in 2000.