Paul Greenberg

CONWAY, Ark. - What a pleasure to be back in school again, this time at the University of Central Arkansas. Maybe this time I'll get it right.

I'm here to talk at a program called High Table, which has a nice Oxbridge ring to it. In the dining halls at Oxford and Cambridge, the students in their scholars' gowns would sit at long tables in the dining hall, while the master and fellows of the college were served at a raised table at one end of the hall, or the High Table.

Happily, things are a good deal less formal at UCA, where students gather 'round in a large, homey den. There's a chess game going on over to one side, and I wish I could play the winner instead of having to listen to myself talk about, of all things, Media Ethics.

The phrase has the sound of an oxymoron. Like military intelligence. Any time a prefix is tacked onto ethics, as in congressional ethics or bioethics . . . watch it! Specializing ethics risks losing contact with ethics in general.

By now I've read a lot of articles in journalism reviews about Media Ethics, but they tend to have more to do with media than ethics.

Except when they're used for decorative purposes, I don't recall seeing many if any references in those articles to Aristotle's "Ethics," or Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations," or the teachings of Confucius or Bonhoeffer . . . .

Or to my own favorite guide, "Pirke Avot," the talmudic tractate on ethics. It contains a useful, three-part admonition for today's journalists, even if it was meant for interpreters of the law a few millennia ago:

1. Love creative work.

2. Do not seek domination over others.

And, last and most useful of all:

3. Avoid intimacy with the ruling authorities.

The big problem with reading articles about the professional ethics of journalism is that, no matter what they say in journalism schools, we're not a profession - which is a darned good thing. That way, we're not licensed by the state, and therefore cannot be disbarred by same.

Thank goodness and the First Amendment, anybody can commit journalism in this country.

Despite our occasional demands for special treatment, freedom of the press doesn't belong just to the press. And the more the press insists on being above the law, the more trouble awaits. That's no way to win friends and influence people.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.