Historian Paul Johnson’s Ten Commandments for a More Moral Media

By Jack Limpert

Paul Johnson’s seven deadly sins of the media were posted Friday—they included the worshiping of false images, murder of character, sex exploitation, and the abuse of enormous power. Here, from a 1995 interview in The Washingtonian, are the British historian’s ten commandments for a more moral media.

1. Desire to discover and tell the truth. This is tough, since truth is often hidden or evasive, slippery, dangerous, and complex. Sometimes truth is undiscoverable.

2. Think through the consequences of what you tell. What legitimately informs? What needlessly inflames?

3. Be educated and self-educated through your lifetime. Journalists must read constantly to broaden and deepen their knowledge of the world.

4. Have a missionary spirit to educate. Go beyond telling the public what it wants to know, to what it needs to know.

5. Distinguish between public opinion, in its grand historic sense, and popular opinion of the transitory and volatile kind.

6. Show willingness to lead. Power entails responsibility; responsibility demands leadership.

7. Show courage. The older I get, the more courage becomes the greatest of virtues.

8. Admit error. All media inevitably make mistakes of fact and judgment. Willingness to apologize is the mark of a civilized person.

9. Be habitually fair. Use imagination to see other points of view. Show tolerance of them, and temperance in expressing your own. Above all, keep a rooted sense of justice.

10. Respect, value, treasure, and honor words. Words are the coinage of culture—the blocks upon which civilization rests. Journalists should rejoice in their richness and power.
Earlier in the interview, Johnson was asked to explain the media as a moral force. Some of what he said:

“The media are potentially a great secular church, a way of evangelism for dispersing the darkness of ignorance, expelling error, and establishing truth.

“There’s no nook or cranny of the world or the human spirit that journalists don’t seek to penetrate. We want it that way, since our own curiosity is infinite. That’s why the journalist, even more so than the politician or perhaps even the clergyman, needs to be a moral person.”





Speak Your Mind