Existential Journalism Versus Social Journalism
Existential Journalism Versus Social Journalism
Existential Journalism Versus Social Journalism:
John C. Merrill's False Dichotomy
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Existential Journalism Versus Social Journalism:
John C. Merrill's False Dichotomy
Trying to connect the existential journalist with an ideology, John C. Merrill
makes a strong distinction between, on the one hand, individualist journalism
and libertarianism and, on the other, what he calls "collectivism and groupism"
in journalism, particularly social or communitarian journalism. The
collectivists, Merrill wrote in the new Postscript of the 1996 version of his
book Existential Journalism, stress "the importance of social interaction and
concern," while the individualists and libertarians place "emphasis on the
individual, personal development, and maximum autonomy." Today, he argues, "the
old ideological war between the social or communitarian journalists and the
individual or libertarian journalists has worsened." He then adds: "Quite
naturally, existential journalists find themselves mainly in the latter camp,
stressing as they do personal decision-making and maximum autonomy" (Merrill,
Merrill might or might not be right about the intensified battle between
communitarian and libertarian journalists, but in either case it is not at all
evident that existential journalists would "quite naturally" find themselves
mainly in the libertarian camp. There are many indications that things are more
complicated than Merrill's suggestion of a near exclusive relationship between
libertarianism and existential journalism.
First, Merrill himself, for good reasons, tends to modify his position,
particularly when he emphasizes the need for existential journalists to be
responsible and involved in society and when he argues that journalists should
take to heart what he defines as a communitarian concern derived from Karl Marx
"to see a world free from exploitation, poverty, misery, fear and oppression."
He also explicitly states that he does not want to "impugn the importance of
social interaction. No Enlightenment liberal would have done that; nor would any
of the existentialists. Obviously there has to be a mutualism in journalism:
There must be a concern both for the individual and for the social fabric in
which the individual functions" (Merrill, 1996, 27-46, 119; also 1994, 100).
In other words, the existential and social journalist share some ground.
Second, many of the prominent existential journalists to which Merrill and, in
the new Introduction to the 1996 Existential Journalism, two of his students
refer are not easily defined as libertarians (Merrill, 1996, 3-4; Blevens &
Cole, xiii-xix). I.F. Stone, William Greider, Molly Ivens, Tom Wicker and Bill
Moyers might well be called existential journalists for their individualism,
independence, personal approach and their high, individually determined
standards for good journalism, but it seems reasonable to argue that they, to
different degrees and in different ways, have at the very least a social and,
some of them, perhaps even a communitarian streak.
Third, when media ethicists Clifford Christians, John Ferr and Mark Fackler
write that their brand of communitarianism, which is devoted to civic
transformation, "aims to liberate the citizenry, inspire acts of conscience,
pierce the political fog, and enable the consciousness raising that is essential
for constructing a social order through dialogue, mutually, in concert with our
universal humanity," they are very much in line with various aspects of classic
existentialism, not in the least in their desire for a liberated citizenry with
a raised consciousness (Christians et al., 1993, p. 14).
Fourth, the intellectual tradition in which existential and social journalism
are rooted have, despite obvious, crucial differences, important elements in
common. Existential journalism is, of course, rooted in the thinking of Smren
Kierkegaard and other existentialist philosophers. Social journalism, through
20th-century social-democracy or democratic-socialism, owes its existence in
part to the intellectual legacy of Marxism -- that is, 19th-century Marxism
rather than 20th-century variations such as Marxist-Leninism. The existence of
studies with titles such as Marxist Existentialism and The Existential Basis of
Marxism shows deliberate and serious attempts to define that common ground, as
does the career of prominent French existentialist philosopher and
sometime-journalist Jean-Paul Sartre, who moved between existentialism, Marxism,
and libertarian socialism (Lessing, 1967; Press, 1977).
Kierkegaard himself ventured into what is usually considered Marx's territory
in his understanding of the press as a monopolist power under the control of
capital (Best & Kellner, 1990). Kierkegaard was concerned with the press because
he thought that information as a commodity had a leveling effect on individuals
in that the reason for its dispensation was profit, which was better served with
lowbrow entertainment than with sophisticated information. Circulation, not
meaningful communication, was the primary concern of information as commodity,
Kierkegaard argued. "Although Kierkegaard certainly had no clear conception of
ideology in the Marxist sense of a class-based control of consciousness,"
according to Best & Kellner, "he anticipated what neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci
later termed 'hegemony,' that is, social control gained more through
(manipulated) consent than force -- a control more powerful because [it's] more
mystified and because it penetrates the most immediate aspects of everyday life"
(Best & Kellner, 1990, 38-41).
Kierkegaard is also no longer just seen as the father of existentialism. His
work is increasingly discussed in relation to critical theory, which has a
critical orientation to modern society and originates in Marxist thought, and
post-modernism, which can broadly be described as a variety of critical
approaches that deal with the effects -- not in the least the alienating effects
-- of information-age capitalism on the individual (Jansen, 1990; Best &
Kellner, 1990; Marsch, 1990; Jegstrup, 1995; Merrill, 1994).
Part of that common ground between Marx and Kierkegaard, who were
contemporaries, is the attention for "alienation" of the individual, even though
they stressed different aspects of alienation. One argument in this paper is
that the concept of alienation is more useful for discussing existential
journalism in action than political concepts such as "libertarianism" or
"communitarianism" or "socialism." These political concepts focus primarily on
society at large, while alienation focuses on the individual in relation to his
or her material and spiritual or philosophical environment and, thus, on the
factors that interfere with individuals' true self, forcing them to either
conform or not conform.
Merrill does discuss alienation, although he links the concept with
existentialism only, not with Marx. More importantly, his attention to
alienation does not prevent him from presenting communitarianism as the main
cause for journalistic conformism rather than the societal and professional
factors that cause alienation and, thus, the need for journalists to chose
between conforming or, in existential fashion, rebelling.
My core and more basic argument is, however, not about alienation but that
Merrill compares apples and oranges when he creates a dichotomy between
existential and social journalism, which makes the dichotomy a false one. The
love for individual freedom shared by libertarianism and existentialism does not
automatically mean that existential journalism and non-libertarian, social
journalism are, both practically and in principle, each other's opposites, as
Merrill's rather sharp division between the two in the new chapters of
Existential Journalism seems to suggest.
Practically, it's not hard to argue, as I will, that social and even socialist
journalists can be and have been existential journalists as defined by Merrill.
Principally, Merrill's own definition of existential journalism contradicts his
sharp division between existential and social journalism.
If Merrill were just another writer on the topic, the theoretical problems with
practical implications that his work suffers from may not warrant a paper-length
treatment, but his prominent and well-deserved place in the literature about
journalism ethics and the philosophical underpinnings of journalism practices in
the United States, does. His well-founded and eloquent warnings against newsroom
conformism, too, justify a closer look at his work, particularly since Merrill's
questionable analysis of the causes of this conformism, embedded in his
existential v. social journalism dichotomy, may hamper a serious search for
Moreover, by claiming near-exclusive rights on existential-journalism status
for libertarian journalists, he puts a priori limitations on the concept that
are theoretically unfounded and practically unnecessary. These self-inflicted
limitations severely undermine the promise and potential of Merrill's plea for
existential journalism, the goal of which should ultimately be newsrooms that
are inhabited by journalists and editors who are not simply politically,
philosophically and existentially different but who deliberately make their
differences count, contributing to a less predictable and conformist approach to
Merrill's Existential v. Social Journalism
The main political and philosophical -- as opposed to journalistic --
distinction that Merrill draws in the 1996 version of Existential Journalism is
between classic, 18th century Enlightenment liberalism with its libertarianism
and individualism and positions that he summarizes as "collectivism or
groupism," particularly communitarianism, that stress the importance of
community and social interaction and concerns rather than individualism. That
distinction is not under debate here; Merrill's sharp distinction between
existential and social journalism is. Merrill draws the distinction both on a
general theoretical level and on a practical level related to what he perceives
to be the current state of affairs in journalism in the United States.
On a theoretical level, Merrill, despite his recognition that existentialism
and Enlightenment liberalism aren't synonymous, makes a strong connection
between existential journalism and Enlightenment liberalism, subsequently
pitching them in coalition against collectivist thinking that inspires social
journalism. He calls existential journalism "a kind of liberalism ... with no
belief in a natural social harmony ..." He claims, as shown above, existential
journalists for libertarianism and, furthermore, argues that the existential
journalist subscribes to "a kind of journalism that is opposed to the
non-frictionalized and harmonized world of the communitarian or social engineer"
(Merrill, 1996, 11, 118).
On a practical level, Merrill's sharp distinction between existential and
social journalism emerges from a kind of guilt by association and/or correlation
that is at work in his not always carefully crafted text. Merrill observes
increased conformism and corporate, rules-bound journalism in a time when, he
claims, communitarianism, both in society and in journalism, is on the rise. He
then implies that the two developments are connected. He implies this in part by
suggesting that those in the newsroom who emphasize social concerns, who hold
communitarian notions for society, transfer their societal concerns to the
newsroom as demands for uniformism and conformism in the profession and a
distaste for newsroom individualism. In other words, Merrill suggests that
journalists who hold communitarian ideas for society wish to quell individualism
in the newsroom in favor of group thinking because they are communitarians. But
apart from the very suggestion, he provides no evidence or even a reasoned
argument for this. Not surprisingly then, he never considers that conformism
could have become rampant in the newsroom even if communitarianism -- or simply
the post-Hutchins Commission wish for responsible journalism -- hadn't gained
some popularity. In the final analysis, he seems to ignore the possibility that
other factors may have caused newsroom conformism.
Merrill and Communitarian Terror
Merrill writes in the new first chapter of the 1996 version of Existential
Journalism that today "is a time when societal pressures still tend to
depreciate individual autonomy and mold journalists into smooth functioning
robots. It is my belief that journalists must rebel against . . . growing
conformism, must push back the encroaching bonds of institutionalization and
professionalism, and determine to exercise maximum freedom in their daily
endeavors." His next sentence in a new paragraph continues: "Today as
communitarianism clambers into the intellectual driver's seat, at least in
academic communications circles, a book with the emphasis on Existential
Journalism is needed more than ever. With the liberalism of the Enlightenment
under fire from the new communitarians ... there is a need to restate the old
libertarian verities so popular in the intellectual circles of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. This is not to suggest that Enlightenment liberalism
is synonymous with existentialism, for it is not, but that the
eighteenth-century liberals and the more recent existentialists have had a
similar respect and desire for personal freedom" (Merrill, 1996, 5).
While Merrill seems to be blaming communitarians for growing conformism in
general and in journalism, it's unclear whether communitarians in journalism
work in coalition with encroaching institutionalization and professionalism that
is the result of societal pressures or that communitarians -- and only or mainly
them -- provide the societal pressure that leads to encroaching institutionalism
and professionalism. Whatever the nuances, the chain of causal relationships
can't just be stated casually; it needs to be shown or at least argued with some
care and consistency. Merrill doesn't do so.
In any case, the forces forcing conformism work on two levels: society at large
and the newsrooms. While the focus here is on the latter, it should be noted
that there is no intrinsic reason why on a societal level libertarianism would
by definition prevent conformism and decreasing individualism or why
communitarianism would by definition cause them.
Kierkegaard, for one, didn't agitate against a specific political position but
against an emerging mass society in general. It's true that he didn't like
socialism because he considered it part of a historical trend toward a society
of mathematical equality and homogeneity in which people were mere numbers, but
he felt the same about democracy (Jansen, 1990, p. 6-7). Perhaps more
importantly, Kierkegaard's existentialism was not a reaction to a communitarian
world. On the contrary, it was a reaction to the world that developed out of the
18th-century Enlightenment liberalism that Merrill holds so dearly.
Also, the communitarianism that Christians et al. seem to advocate isn't
anti-individual; it, unlike some forms of libertarianism, simply takes into
consideration that one person's individuality should preferably not come at the
expense of someone else's, a prerequisite that makes the maximization of
individual freedom a much more difficult project than many libertarians care to
Back on the journalistic level, it should be kept in mind that the problem here
is not Merrill's suspicion that conformism in the journalistic profession is on
a high level and perhaps higher than before. There is very little reason to
believe that he is wrong about that. The problem is that Merrill shows no
evidence for his suggestion that the source of this current conformism is
communitarianism. That in itself doesn't necessarily mean it's not true, but it
leaves considerable room for alternative trains of thought. Merrill himself
points, for instance, at "organization and technology" as forces turning people
into "conformists" and "robopaths," as well as, in the case of journalists,
"highly institutionalized 'corporate' journalism" (Merrill, 1996, 31, 60). While
"organization" may, in a theoretically vulgar fashion, perhaps be associated
with communitarianism, this would be a stretch for technology or corporations.
More in general, the complicated relationships between, for instance, the
emergence of socially responsible journalism, communitarianism, the emergence of
corporate media focused on maximum profits, and institutionalization and
increased 'professionalism' in journalism suggest that more careful
consideration may be needed in the search for the causes of journalistic
conformism. The apparently existential status of Stone, Greider, Ivens, Wicker
and Moyers does so, too.
In evoking the horrors of communitarianism in the newsroom,
Merrill implies that those in the newsroom with communitarian convictions are
simply a bunch of collectivists in every aspect of their existence, who somehow
look favorably upon robot-like, everybody's-just-a-cog-in-the-wheel journalism.
Merrill leaves little room for the possibility that societal communitarians
might on a personal level be appreciative of individualism and that they might
consider individualism in journalism useful, even crucial, for promoting
societal communitarianism. When communitarians such as Christians et al. talk
about liberating the citizenry and enabling consciousness raising, they might
well perceive a need for a diverse corps of journalists rather than an army of
like-minded, centrally directed, typists of news, but that possibility seems
lost on Merrill (Merrill, 1996, 3-12, 117-124).
In as much as public journalism can be considered a journalistic expression of
communitarianism, it would be even harder to imagine that anyone would consider
it an advantage to pursue this with robot-like journalists. Public journalism is
about engaging citizens, getting communities to talk about important issues in
the community. Although the goal is to reach greater involvement and,
presumably, more explicit consensus within a community, it seems evident that
this can only come about if such a community would first also explore its
differences. It is hard to see, again, that anyone, communitarian or not,
pursuing journalistic facilitation of the exploratory process that could lead to
greater community consensus would argue that this is best done with journalists
who think alike. But Merrill may be suggesting exactly that.
All this is not just important because the problem of conformism in newsrooms
would be better served by a more thorough analysis of its causes than is
provided by simply pointing the finger at communitarians. Of more immediate
relevance here is that if Merrill would be wrong about communitarianism as the
major cause of newsroom conformism, the state of affairs in U.S. newsrooms
simply wouldn't support his claims about the hostile relationship between social
and existential journalism, the dichotomy that is the central issue here and in
the new chapters of Existential Journalism.
After all, Merrill equates the social- v. existential journalism battle with
conformism v. non-conformism in the newsroom, but if newsroom conformism is not
as neatly linked to social or communitarian journalism as Merrill claims, then
his social- v. existential journalism division doesn't necessarily hold. In that
case, it remains unclear where the social- or communitarian journalist is
positioned on the conformism issue. In that case, social journalists could
actually be part of the non-conformist or existential-journalist camp.
Consequently, Merrill's claim that the present-day existential journalist
"quite naturally" finds him- or herself mainly in the libertarian camp would,
for now, only be supported by Merrill saying so, not by evidence from newsrooms
in the United States.
Defining existential journalism, Merrill says that it "is that aspect of
journalism mainly manifested in an attitude of freedom, commitment, rebellion,
and responsibility. It makes no a priori assumptions as to the direction the
journalism should take. It is mainly an orientation of being 'true to one's
self,' however trite this may sound." It is, he continues, "subjective in the
sense that it puts special stress on the person of the journalist itself." It is
not extremely subjective but "modified subjective journalism" that does not,
like is usually the case in journalism, repress subjectivity, although it
remains reasonable and responsible. It is "future-oriented journalism" that
takes issue with the stance of detachment and disinterest that journalists often
adopt in an attempt to achieve "objectivity," because, in Erich Fromm's words,
the idea that "lack of interest is a condition for recognizing the truth is
fallacious." It doesn't matter as much what a journalist does in specific cases,
says Merrill, as long as he does something (Merrill, 1996, 28-33).
Merrill argues that "existential journalism:
y emphasizes that the existential journalist is a free and authentic person, not
simply a cog in the impersonal wheel of journalism . . . ;
y brings into sharp relief the uniqueness of every journalist's individual
existence and personality;
y causes practitioners to develop their integrity and individual personalities
and to project their personalities into society through their journalism;
y makes them rebel against being lost, anonymous functionaries in journalism;
y extols freedom and responsibility for decisions in a day when more and more
people are trying to escape freedom and journalists are even more cheerfully
disappearing in to the recesses of highly institutionalized 'corporate'
journalism . . ." (Merrill, 1996, p. 31).
The existential journalist takes a certain viewpoint and no longer engages in
the "'objective-neutralism' fallacy"; considers alternatives of action and
commits to one or some, "not resting on the comfortable assumption that a little
of everything ranged rather equally is the best . . . journalism"; makes
deliberate decisions about editorial direction, knowing that what he chooses for
himself, he chooses for all, thereby universalizing his choices; follows his own
standard, considers and accepts responsibility for his journalistic actions, not
making excuses or otherwise copping out; accepts and uses his personal and
journalistic freedom, to which he is dedicated; is vital, dynamic, passionate
and committed, repelling stagnant, conformist, routine, uncommitted,
dispassionate journalism; and looks at the world and journalistic issues from
his personal viewpoint (Merrill, 1996, p. 31-32).
Merrill's existential journalism is, in short, journalistic non-conformism that
is the result of authentic living. It is, like existentialism itself, an
attitude. More precisely, it is the inevitable attitude and behavior of an
individual journalist living authentically, according to the journalist's own
Merrill's definition of the existential journalist is thoughtful, but there are
some problems with it. There is the ambiguity in the existential journalists'
relation to journalistic goals -- goals that go beyond the journalists
themselves as individuals. Merrill argues that existential journalism doesn't
make an a priori assumption about journalism's direction. But, as shown
earlier, he also claims that it opposes what he calls the non-frictionalized and
harmonized world of the communitarian. That would indicate that existential
journalism makes at least an a priori assumption about the direction journalism
will not take. This, of course, limits existential options, pushing the
existential journalist a priori in a certain direction after all.
The ambiguity is reinforced by Merrill's emphasis, noted earlier, on the
importance of social interaction and the existential journalist's concern with
"the social fabric." It is also reinforced by his approval of journalists
striving for a world free from poverty and oppression. And when Merrill writes
that, "thrusting themselves into the social maelstrom, [existential journalists]
seek to harmonize their own self-interest with the wider public interest,"
Merrill's existential journalist not only chooses an a priori direction but one
that leads to concerns shared with communitarian colleagues (Merrill, 1996,
This is not to argue that such ambiguity is problematic perse. It isn't,
because it is expected that no relevant outlook is fully consistent to the point
of rigidity. Moreover, a certain interplay, cross-fertilization or dialectic
between different philosophies is, as Merrill argued in The Dialectic in
Journalism, desirable and inevitable (Merrill, 1989). But since the ambiguity
exists in an area -- the implications of commitment to the social sphere --
where Merrill locates the perhaps most important distinction between existential
and social journalism, it needs to be noted.
But the bigger problem with Merrill's definition is that it directly
contradicts his suggestion that existential journalism is the exclusive domain
of libertarians. Consequently, it undermines his dichotomy between existential
journalism and social journalism inspired by non-libertarian notions such as
In accordance with existential thinking, Merrill correctly stresses the
authenticity of the existential journalist, but he clearly suggests that
authenticity alone does not lead to existential-journalist status. After all,
Merrill emphasizes that the existential journalist is also alone, an outsider, a
rebel (Merrill, 1996, 8-11, 27-33, 122-123).
Merrill's emphasis on the existential journalist's sense of alienation -- "the
fact that the journalist senses an isolation from society in the reporter's
role" -- shows the journalist's aloneness and outsider status, as does Merrill's
assertion that existential journalists feel severely restricted by the power
structure at their jobs, which undermines "their own selfhood or identity." What
might be in store for existential journalists insisting on practicing vital,
dynamic, passionate, non-conformist, dangerous, vigorous, self-enhancing,
personal freedom-loving journalism confirms their outsider status. "The
existential journalist is alone, at times penalized by stagnation of position,
pay, and newsroom status and may even be dismissed."
Furthermore, Merrill talks about "existential journalist rebels," an attitude
of rebellion, "rebels ... who rebel persistently," the lonely rebel with a
conscience, and about rebelling against conformity, "against being lost,
anonymous functionaries in journalism," against the trend toward corporate
journalism, and against being buried in the shallow mass grave that American
journalism has become. The existential journalist accepts no superiors "so far
as decision-making or ethical stand is concerned." Existential status and rebel
status go, therefore, hand in hand, not so much because being a rebel is an
essential precondition for achieving existential-journalist status but because,
given the high degree of conformism in the newsroom, an authentically living
journalist has no choice but to be somewhat of a rebel if he wants to stay true
Defining an existential journalist as alone and a rebel seems sensible, and
it's certainly in line with Kierkegaard's wish of individuals standing away from
the masses. But it has important analytical consequences. If being a rebel,
being alone, being the exception, is what the existential journalist inevitably
is, then existential journalism in action can only be defined in relationship to
its surroundings, not just on its own terms. Whether someone is or isn't an
existential journalist then depends ultimately on the person's environment, the
context within which he or she works. It is then only possible to be an
existential journalist if one operates outside of what is considered the norm,
outside of at least the newsroom's mainstream. It is, therefore, that norm and
what constitutes the mainstream that determines who the potential existential
journalists are, not any one individual journalist, of whatever political or
ideological or professional persuasion.
The mainstream or norm in the newsroom can be determined by
political-ideological elements and by professional-institutional requirements.
If the political-ideological level is considered decisive -- and the centrality
of Merrill's dichotomy between social and existential journalism implies he
thinks so -- then only, say, non-conservatives can be existential if the
mainstream is conservative. If the mainstream is socialist, only non-socialists
can be existential.
But while in such an approach the socialist who acts authentically and holds
his ground in conservative surroundings is likely to be an existential
journalist, that same socialist, acting identically and equally authentic, can't
claim existential status in socialist surroundings. The same is true for the
libertarian journalist. If he operates in a libertarian environment, he can by
Merrill's definition not be an existential journalist. His authentic,
hard-arguing and persistent communitarian colleague, on the other hand, could be
the existential journalist in the libertarian newsroom.
Keep in mind, however, that the political-ideological level may not be decisive
in determining who could be the existential journalist. Libertarians in a
libertarian newsroom or socialists in a socialist newsroom may not agree on how
news is covered best. Refusing to conform by deliberately deviating from what is
their newsroom's professional norm might make the libertarian reporter an
existential journalist in the libertarian newsroom, and the socialist, an
existential journalist in the socialist newsroom. But in his 1996 version of
Existential Journalism, Merrill links professional norms and behavior with
political positions such as communitarianism, and the political-ideological
level takes, therefore, precedence in exploring his arguments.
At the other side of his divide, Merrill seems to be using terms like
"communitarianism," "social journalism," "collectivism," and "groupism"
interchangeably, disregarding, for instance, the distinction that Christians et
al. make between "collectivism" and "communitarianism." The latter is, in their
view, a synthesis of collectivism and Enlightenment individualism, a definition
that diametrically opposes Merrill's interpretation of communitarianism
(Christians et al., 1993, 13-14; Merrill, 1996, 118-119). To Merrill, it only
seems to matter that all these ideas imply a move away from the Enlightenment
libertarianism that he holds so dearly.
In modern history, Merrill traces this position back to the 1947 Hutchins
Commission, which was both the result of and an impetus for a desire for more
responsible journalism. The commission argued that the press has a
responsibility to society and wasn't meeting it. Press responsibility was no
longer viewed as "somehow automatically built into a libertarian press," as had
been assumed until the 19th century. (Merrill, 1989, 41-43)
In Existential Journalism, Merrill doesn't really define any of the
collectivist concepts, but in his 1994 book Legacy of Wisdom, he does describe
"communitarianism," albeit in a fairly charged and self-serving fashion. On an
ethical level he describes it as a position that emphasizes community and common
interest between people and as being opposed to individualism and classical
liberalism. Communitarianism wants journalism to solidify, not fractionalize,
the community. It argues for absolute ethics needed for social harmony and
cohesion. It de-emphasizes journalistic autonomy based on Enlightenment
liberalism. It is reluctant to publish stories that might fractionalize society
and eager to bring social harmony through "positive" journalism (Merrill, 1994,
100, 156, 181). As said before, Merrill also views as communitarian the desire
to see a world free from exploitation, poverty, misery, fear and oppression.
The somewhat crude description served its purpose in the specific, somewhat
superficial context of Legacy of Wisdom but is problematic in that it is based
on Merrill's perceptions and, perhaps, prejudices rather than on empirical data
regarding the attitudes of communitarians and communitarian journalists. At the
very least, the absolute ethics that communitarians allegedly wish for should be
More importantly, Merrill's description of existential journalism and social or
communitarian journalism seems to suggest that they share many elements. We
already saw their mutual concern for the social fabric and a world free of
exploitation and oppression. There is, furthermore, no reason to believe that
many communitarians don't value being responsible, and there are many reasons to
believe they would favor deliberate editorial decisions. Communitarian
journalists could well share the existential journalist's subscription to
"modified subjective journalism" in that they may discard old-style journalistic
objectivity for a more activist approach to deciding what's news and, perhaps,
what kind of data and comments are relevant to that news. Karl Marx the
journalist certainly did.
In that activist sense it is easy to imagine that the communitarians, like
Merrill's existential journalists, don't assume "that a little of each ranged
rather equally" is the best journalism. They certainly share the existential
journalist's distaste for detachment and disinterest; in fact, involvement is
crucial to the communitarian's approach.
And there is no reason to think that communitarians could not also, like
Merrill's existential journalist, consider alternatives and commit to one or
some and take responsibility for their choices. In fact, the more hard-line
communitarian they are, the more likely they are to commit to a certain choice.
One of Merrill's very complaints is about communitarian journalists' strong
commitment to certain choices, because he doesn't like their choices. But if the
communitarians make those choices for authentic reasons, they follow the same
personal-standard procedures as Merrill's existential journalists.
Apples and Oranges
None of this is to argue that Merrill's libertarian existential journalist is
no different from a social or communitarian journalist. They are very different
in political and ideological outlook. They are, however, not necessarily
different in how they approach journalism. Whether they are depends not on the
communitarian journalist's political outlook but on how he approaches his
profession. He may approach it no less authentically, individualistically and
rebelliously than his libertarian existential colleague.
The crucial theoretical problem is that Merrill compares apples and oranges.
Social or communitarian journalism is part of a general political or
philosophical outlook that stresses social concerns and has as its opposite
Enlightenment liberalism or libertarianism. Social or communitarian journalism's
opposite is, therefore, libertarian journalism. Existential journalism is simply
a personal attitude that translates into one's professional behavior, like
existentialism has been said to be an attitude rather than a consistent
philosophical system (Aiken, 1957, 226). Existential journalism has as its
opposite not social or even socialist journalism but conformism in journalism
that is the result of acting inauthentically.
To put it differently, social or communitarian journalism is journalism with a
purpose for society, as is, of course, libertarian journalism. That purpose may
vary in ways in which citizens and communities communicate and engage each other
to specific prescriptions for society. In short, social or communitarian
journalism is ultimately about journalism and journalists in relation to
society. It is about outcome, about what the results of journalistic work can or
should be -- results that are usually defined in terms of a just society. This
is not necessarily true for existential journalism, which, according to Merrill,
ultimately is about the individual journalist in relation to his- or herself,
even though that journalist should not be a recluse. It is about the individual
behavior of the journalists, about how they go about doing their job. More
essentially, it is about their motives for doing what they do, about why they do
what they do, whether they do it for authentic reasons.
Since, therefore, the concepts of social journalism and existential journalism
apply to two very different levels of the journalist's activity and the
journalistic profession -- journalism's impact on society v. the journalist as
an individual -- there is no inherent reason why a communitarian journalist
couldn't be existential, or an existential journalist, communitarian. Mind you,
many communitarian journalists might not be existential, and many existential
journalists are probably not communitarian, but what matters here is that both
can be either. Merrill expects his existential journalist, who is involved in
society and opposes detachment, to make deliberate decisions about editorial
directions and stick with them. It is hard to see why that editorial decision
could not involve a commitment to some sort of communitarian philosophy and
The crucial element of Merrill's existential journalism is not whether
existential journalists have a particular societal goal in mind when they report
but whether they are sincere -- in this case, about any desirable goal and their
and society's need for achieving it. What matters is whether that goal and their
reporting truly reflects existential journalists' authentic self rather than
something that is forced on them by others. "What a journalist does in specific
cases does not matter as much as the fact that he does something," Merrill
argues. "The supreme virtue for the existentialist is probably the most
old-fashioned of all: integrity" (Merrill, 1996, 33).
Therefore, the communitarian journalist whose convictions and actions are
authentic rather than the result of obliviousness or a perceived need to conform
to a possibly emerging communitarian spirit and who, moreover, would stick to
his guns when attacked for his convictions and actions, should qualify as a
potential existential journalist, even if he -- or Merrill, for that matter --
never thought of himself in those terms.
Definitions and Other Problems
To predict where existentialists are likely to be found and who they might be
is clearly no easy task. The search would certainly have to start with much more
precise definitions than Merrill provides in many more areas than he considers
-- definitions of political outlooks and their possible consequences for the
practice of journalism, of journalistic professionalism and its consequences for
coverage, and of what does and does not constitute, politically and
professionally, the mainstream in general, in the newsroom, on specific news
beats in certain newsrooms, etc. Such a project is way beyond the scope of what
Merrill tried to do in Existential Journalism, and it would be unfair to
criticize him for not having done it.
Still, a more careful use of terms and concepts could have been expected from
Merrill. The only ones adequately defined in Existential Journalism are
existential journalism and, to a lesser extent, Enlightenment liberalism or
libertarianism. In Legacy of Wisdom he provides a somewhat charged and general
description of communitarianism, which seems in his mind to be the same as
social or responsible journalism. But there is no adequate discussion of
differences between various collectivist or society-oriented philosophies, not
much discussion of the political and professional elements that make up the
journalistic mainstream, and little discussion of what aspects of increased
professionalism and institutionalization have led to what kind of conformism in
newsrooms. All these things are crucial for an analysis of existential
journalism in action.
The lack of clear definitions does not mean Merrill is wrong in his concern
that conformism in journalism is high and his argument for the need for
existential journalists. What he did not do is make a clear case for the causes
of conformism. It is apparently the result of the overall effect of decreased
libertarianism and increased professionalization and institutionalization as
well as technology and the emergence of large media organizations, but it
remains up in the air which of these factors, if any, is the dominant one and
how they may have influenced each other.
As it stands, Merrill's claim that the communitarians are to blame is no more
and probably less credible than would be an insistence that the libertarians
have caused conformism in the newsroom. Libertarians may, after all, be more in
tune with the corporate media's hunt for maximum profits that has encouraged
institutionalization, predictable media routines as well as professionalization
and increased use of technology, factors that have encouraged conformism, as
Merrill correctly claims, even though he points the finger at communitarians
first. Turning news into a commodity to make a profit -- which, Kierkegaard
argued, has a leveling effect on society -- could well be facilitated more by
libertarians than by communitarians.
It also remains unclear what the move away from libertarianism exactly entails
and when it took place in which form. This is in part the result of Merrill
treating different forms of non-libertarian thought, from collectivism to social
responsibility, as if they are basically the same. He suggests that
communitarianism, or at least its surge, is a relatively recent phenomenon, but
he places its origins in the 1947 Hutchins Commission's idea of responsible
journalism (Merrill, 1996, 3; 1994, 100). He makes, unlike Christians et al.
(1993), no distinction between communitarianism and collectivism. Merrill argues
that collective or society-oriented rather than libertarian thinking is growing,
but the former can range from social responsibility to socialist or even Marxist
thinking. While Merrill doesn't think the Marxists are taking over, he is vague
about who exactly is. Except for, apparently, being less libertarian and more
collectivist, it is absolutely unclear what, according to him, the journalistic
mainstream looks like. And, as argued, without knowing what the mainstream is,
it is impossible to judge who the existential journalists might be.
The lack of precision leads to vague and dubious statements and general
analytical confusion. That, for instance, "the Marxists of modern journalism
extol . . . social harmony," as Merrill wrote in Legacy of Wisdom, is news to
those who were brought up to believe that Marxists emphasize class struggle. And
when the late Christopher Lasch, one of the communitarian intellectuals whose
influence Merrill fears, can be caught bemoaning "the lost art of debate" and
pleading for "vigorous public debate," it looks like Merrill might not have his
communitarian ducks in a row.
Lasch even painted the same development as Merrill did when the former wrote
that the "political debate [in the press] began to decline around the turn of
the century, curiously enough at a time when the press was becoming more
'responsible,' more professional, more conscious of its civic obligations." Of
course, Lasch placed the beginning of that development prior to the Hutchins
Commission and he didn't make statements about causality, but his comment, which
runs parallel to Merrill's, once again suggests that Merrill's dichotomy between
communitarianism and his existential journalism needs fine-tuning. (Lasch, 1976,
161-175; Merrill, 1996, 5)
So does the case of A. Kent MacDougall, who spent a career as a radical and
socialist at the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, pursuing a path
potentially dangerous to his career by passionately writing stories based on his
beliefs, including profiles of radical economists and historians and of I.F.
Stone, the certified existential journalist with whom MacDougall had much
affinity. Instead of resigning himself to the notion that his radical ideas
would have no place in such mainstream dailies, as perhaps the conformist would
have done, MacDougall stayed true to himself, promoting his own take on issues
by interviewing experts he knew would support his thesis and seeking out
mainstream authorities to confer respectability on radical views he wanted to
popularize. He made editorial choices. Adhering to the journalistic techniques
of objectivity and impartiality allowed him to be subjective and partial,
inserting his personality and conviction into society. In short, the
collectivist MacDougall did many of the things that would make Merrill and his
existential journalist proud (MacDougall, 1988).
The Bigger Picture: Alienation
That the dichotomy between existential journalism and social journalism doesn't
quite hit the mark doesn't come as a total surprise; the dichotomy between Marx
and Kierkegaard was not all-encompassing either. The two 19th-century
philosophers had important elements in common that are directly relevant here,
particularly their attention to alienation. Both Marx and Kierkegaard wrote when
the changes of the 18th and 19th century social, science, political and media
world had their effect on society. After the Industrial Revolution, the central
place of the individual in the social structure was replaced by a situation in
which the individual's significance was derived from the larger group, the
class, of which he had become a part (Jansen, 1990; Hakim, 1987).
Kierkegaard saw the mass aspects of that society, including the masses
themselves, as a threat to the individual's individuality. Marx saw the new
social relationship and the new mode of production as a threat to a whole class
of individuals, the working class. While Kierkegaard in a sense wanted the
individual to rise above -- or at least away from -- the masses, Marx wanted the
working class individual to rise with the masses, with his class (Hakim, 539;
"To Kierkegaard," Copleston (1976, 163-164) wrote, "to exist as a human being
meant realizing oneself through free choices between alternatives, through self
commitment. For him authentic existence did not mean merging oneself in the
group and identifying one's will with the ends of the group."
But Marx, too, was concerned with the individual. His communist society would,
he wrote, "inscribe on its banner: from each according to his ability, to each
according to his needs" (Quoted in McClellan, 1992, 462-463). Marx wrote about
human beings realizing their true values, relating harmoniously to the natural
world (Honer & Hunt, 1969). Marxist philosophy, Hakim argues, must be seen "as a
personalist philosophy, in the guise of an ethical revolt, an attempt to
discover a human life for human beings." Although Marx and Kierkegaard
"approached man from different viewpoints, their hope was to discover human
values and human dignity" (Hakim, 1987, 537, 583-584).
Both Marx and Kierkegaard were concerned with the alienation of the individual
in modern society. Alienation -- a concept with many material and metaphysical
levels that philosophers have discussed prior to and since Marx and Kierkegaard
(Petrovic, 1983; Lichtheim, 1968) -- is a central concept in Marx's thinking.
His version can broadly be summarized as "dehumanization." The young Marx did,
not unlike Kierkegaard, have an interest in the more general idea of alienation,
relating to, as Hodges (1974) put it, "the emotional and intellectual crippling
of our personal lives and our estrangement from other human beings." Marx's
later, more limited concept of alienation dealt, however, specifically with "the
estrangement of workers from the conditions and consequences of human labor"
(Hodges, 1974, 15-17).
Alienation of the worker in a capitalist system went, according to Marx, beyond
the sheer misery of his impoverished existence, in which there was no room for
education, culture and self-development. Its core was the disconnection between
the individual and his labor. In modern modes of production, the worker was
disconnected from his tools, from the cooperative and social aspect of
producing, and of the product he made. His labor became a commodity, which was
sold to produce goods that had value to the owner of the means of production,
not the worker. "Men have been alienated from the products of their labor,"
Parsons summarized Marx's thinking, "and consequently from themselves" (Parsons,
Kierkegaard did not connect alienation specifically with the modern mode of
production but with the emergence of mass society in general. In a homogenous
society, in which people became mere numbers, and in which human beings became
abstractions because they were defined as a member of a group, the mentality
became one of superficiality, Kierkegaard argued. The mentality in the modern
age, he argued, is one of abstract, anonymous human existence within the crowd,
in which people wait for action, but no one decides to take it and where people
watch but don't participate (Jansen, 1990).
Kierkegaard and Marx can inform studies of existential journalism in action on
two different levels. Taking Kierkegaard and later existentialist thinkers into
consideration, media scholars could focus on the aspects of mass society in
general that may alienate individual journalists from society's mainstream
values, which are likely to be prevalent in their newsroom, too, making these
journalists potential existential journalists if they resist mainstream
pressures inside and outside of the newsroom and stay true to themselves by
doing what they think best.
Taking Marx and later writers about modern production processes into
consideration, journalism researchers could study the elements of newsroom
production processes that may alienate journalists in that those processes may
frustrate the journalist's personal sense of how the work should be done and,
thus, force the journalist to either fight for his or her authentic self or
conform to newsroom norms.
An open approach informed along those general lines -- and not limited in
advance by Merrill's isolation of communitarianism as the main cause of
conformism -- could provide the most exhaustive analysis of the elements that
may interfere with journalists' authentic self and, thus, the areas where the
existential journalist may rebel and the non-existential journalist, conform.
In old parts of the 1996 version of Existential Journalism, Merrill seems to
take the more open approach advocated here. In his section about alienation he
writes that "mass society itself alienates." Citing thinkers such as Erich
Fromm, Carl Jung, and Gabriel Marcel, Merrill points at technocracy and
technology, large organizations, and the mass state as sources of alienation in
an individual's life. He even boldly concludes that "organization and technology
are making the majority of persons conformists, are depersonalizing them, and
making them tame and timid 'robopaths'" (Merrill, 1996, 47-49, 60).
The existentialist, Merrill argues, will as part of his or her authentic living
face and try to overcome alienation and its causes, while the non-existentialist
will try to achieve comfort in conforming to the demands of technology, the
organization, and the state. But here, too, Merrill does not completely escape
what became the main notion in his new, 1996 chapters: that discomfort over
conformism is primarily the domain of libertarians and existentialists. They are
specifically the ones, he suggests, who dislike the results of "conformist
tendencies" -- the demise of press freedom and personal journalistic autonomy
(Merrill, 1996, 55-56).
The Existential Journalist: Anyone, Anywhere
Merrill's definition of existential journalism, then, seems sound and adequate
in that it provides a useful description of the personality characteristics of
the existential journalist. Ultimately, that's what it is -- a description of
personality and professional attitude. Merrill's existential journalist is no
more or less than an authentically living, passionate journalist in an
environment in which his or her values and attitude are unusual and likely to be
frowned upon and who, therefore, is condemned to a position of non-conformity if
he or she wants to remain authentic and faithful to him or her personal self. It
is anyone who will stick to his or her personal convictions and is prepared to
let it clash with different ones that rule his or her newsroom.
Merrill is lacking, however, in that he connects existential journalism with
certain political outlooks and disconnects it from others. He is also lacking in
that he connects it primarily with political positions in the first place. The
pressure to conform is the result of many factors, both in- and outside the
newsroom, that interfere with an individual journalist's authentic self and
cause him or her to become alienated, forcing the choice to either rebel or
conform. These factors can range from political pressure to technological,
institutional, and organizational pressure. Communitarianism, or any other
political philosophy for that matter, is only one element of one potential
source of interference and alienation.
Many libertarian journalists are probably not existential and libertarians
certainly don't hold a near-exclusive lock on existential status. Many
communitarian and social journalists might well be existential. Most journalists
who find themselves outside of the political mainstream and outside of the
professional mainstream but who stay true to themselves will to some degree be
existential journalists. Even some of those who in political terms are solidly
mainstream might be existential journalists in that they may hold uncommon views
about what does or does not constitute professionalism in journalism and act
accordingly. Or they might feel strongly about the coverage of certain topics
and issues that may not be considered important in their particular newsroom and
make sure they get covered.
This existential journalist could, in different environments, be anyone of any
political or professional conviction. In addition to someone who is the
political exception in his or her environment, it could be someone who simply
disagrees with how a certain newspaper executes a certain beat and who tries to
change that according to his or her convictions. It could, in other words, be
the socialist working at the Wall Street Journal or, indeed, the staunch
libertarian working at a newspaper that has made communitarianism its creed. But
it could also simply be, at any newspaper of any political color, the religion
reporter who argues for different coverage of religious issues and goes about
doing it differently; the progressive journalist who argues that articles and
issues on the business pages should not routinely be framed from a business
perspective but also from labor's perspective and who makes sure that at least
in his or her own articles that correction is made; or the intellectually
inclined journalist who opposes the abundance of light-weight lifestyle sections
and the focus on entertainment celebrities, and whose articles for such sections
contain more-than-average food for thought. In a newsroom that stresses the
"common voice from the street," it could be the journalist who insists that only
decision-makers matter; in a newsroom strongly focused on the happy and powerful
few, it could be the journalist who always makes sure that the impact of larger
issues on common folks is an integral part of his or her articles. Depending on
the environment, the existential journalist can be anyone anywhere.
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