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The medium is the morality

Two very different 20th-century academics provide us with models for today's journalism


MacIntyre and McLuhan: Both emphasised the medium over the message

It’s over half a century since Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian mediologist, coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. By that, he meant that no means of cultural communication could be separated from the influences (and ownership) of the medium that carries it.

McLuhan was writing in the mid-1960s after the dawn of what he called electric media, to a world which he claimed still responded as it had culturally in the mechanical media era. He was addressing the new age of telecommunications – telephony and television – and the radio and cinema.

So the argument develops that content – and, yes, he called it that – can’t be evaluated separately from the means of its delivery. Media, McLuhan argued, are no more than natural resources, like coal, cotton or oil, to be mined and exploited for human purposes.

It’s a moral-agency narrative that the National Rifle Association in the US deploys in support of the right to bear arms: It’s not the gun, it’s the gunner. McLuhan adapts the logic with greater sophistication, quoting approvingly the prolific New Yorker reporter A.J.Liebling – himself no stranger to the gun/gunner logic with his aphorism “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” – as saying that man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there.

So, it’s not the gun, it’s the light bulb. Again, this is a McLuhan metaphor. His case that our societies are not significantly affected by the content which our media communicate, but rather by the characteristics of the media themselves, is illustrated by the device of a light bulb. He argues that a light bulb doesn’t convey content (obviously) in the way that a newspaper (or, today, website) carries content, but is nevertheless a medium without content, because it enables people to see in the darkness the space around them – indeed it enables them to aim the gun, both literally and metaphorically.

The academic community was sniffy to the point of snobbery about McLuhan’s work. He was a troubadour, they implied, no more than a cliché-ridden huckster, falling for the slogans of marketeers who peddled their wares through the new electric media.

this garish and muddled showman,whose buzzwords are every man-in-the-street’s common coin…

French philosopher and journalist Regis Debray, noting that Umberto Eco claims that McLuhan’s medium conflates all sorts of things such as channels, codes and messages, sneered in his Media Manifestos of 1996 that “most of us are familiar with the superior tone, somewhere between irritation and playfully mocking, that in the right circles is elicited by this impostor-prophet, this garish and muddled showman,whose buzzwords are every man-in-the-street’s common coin… and whom no hard science type grants any seriousness or epistemological dignity.”

We might conclude that trolling is nothing new, then. And, wittingly or otherwise, Debray affirms McLuhan’s line that “subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact” means that “each of the media is also a powerful weapon with which to clobber other media and other groups.”

So despite detractors such as Debray and Eco, he’s not called a media prophet for nothing – McLuhan wrote these words exactly 40 years before Facebook was founded. As Debray himself writes prophetically: The “message made absolute” [his italics] leads ineluctably to “the communicant without community, the message brought home without any mail handling costs or expenses for making its way there.” In short, a message economy that no longer supports a respectable messenger.

So, to my point: This is to load the observation of these post-modern trends with the freight of moral responsibility. True, there may be no such requirement for moralising. It may well be that as the message becomes the medium[my italics, thankyou] it liberates itself from media-ownership. The old (pre-electric) modes are gone for good. It’s in the nature of abstract art, (and as Debray lists) text without book, painting without canvas. And if it’s language without material inscription, as is suggested, then where social media takes us is journalism without proprietor or editor, platform without publishing, bloggers without journalism.

But wait. This is about the message being subsumed in the medium. It takes no account of the medium itself and the practitioners within it – otherwise plausibly called journalists. They are not there for the message (though they are often deemed to be; “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” is the adage). For them, the medium can’t be the message, for where is the virtue in that?

More specifically, where are the virtue ethics? The Scottish moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre re-habilitated pre-Enlightenment, Aristotelian virtue ethics in the 1980s, which had been revised by Kantian thought to be all about principles rather than character. Wrong: MacIntyre argued persuasively that the common good comes from individual character, our internal virtues. So we can reasonably extrapolate that being a media messenger (a jouranlist, in other words) is about character rather than principle.

MacIntyre argued that virtue ethics are essential for people to live a good life, because they are essentially about character and are therefore actor-based rather than action-based. In market terms, we transact goods: Internal goods are those that make us who we are (virtues, values, morals); external goods are about material success (money, status, reputation).

He said that we play out our internal goods through practices – this is our work in the world, whether it’s being a brain surgeon, playing the cello or designing software. Or writing a story. This is our telos in ancient Greek thinking (called teleology): How we tell our narratives in the world. In MacIntyrean terms, a practice by definition must serve the common good and therefore needs to come together with others in communal activity. Rather pleasingly for the bourgoisie, it turns out that practices (by this definition) are rather middle class. Architecture is a practice but bricklaying isn’t; journalism is a practice, but printing isn’t.

This communal activity requires organisations, which run the risk of institutionalising virtue and destroying it with those external goods which are attached to material ambition. Newspapers and websites are, of course, institutions. But external goods can serve internal goods by supporting (and sustaining them – finance being the most obvious asset here. It’s through the medium, therefore, that we make the virtuous organisation.

So what I want to suggest is this: McLuhan’s message/medium (of the 1960s) is not incompatible with MacIntyre’s virtue ethics/practices (of the 1980s). The idea that the individual’s internal goods contribute to the common good and virtuous organisations materially doesn’t depart from the medium being the message. Both trains of thought trace the essence of the message – the output, or story in journalistic terms – to the character of the messenger or the characteristic of the medium.

MacIntyre and McLuhan do share common ground in this thesis. And, furthermore, if (good) journalists are called by “practice” to their medium, then they are building virtuous organisations (assuming they are not warped by external goods, which admittedly is a big ask). In this sense, the medium is the morality.

The expression isn’t mine, or particularly new. The Dutch philosopher of technology, Peter-Paul Verbeek, argues that technologies are inherently moral agents and designing them is a moral enterprise whether or not it’s intended to be – in this way, the human and the technological are inseparable (and Verbeek’s “Cussing the Buzz-saw”, blaming one’s tools for a bad job, is interchangeable with “gunner not the gun”).

Again, the messenger has become the medium. If nothing else, it’s a model for self-regulation in journalism, but that’s another story.

George Pitcher

George Pitcher

George Pitcher is a writer and talker, an academic specialising in the purposes of journalism and an Anglican priest. You can read his LSE blog here.

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