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University of Missouri

The Philosopher of the J-School

Journalism giant John Merrill not to be forgotten.

John C. Merrill

John Merrill based journalism decisions on principles. 1979 Columbia Missourian photo by Bill Sikes.

John Merrill has been called a curmudgeon, a pessimist, a fiercely independent man, a genius and a giant in the field of journalism. Merrill, who began teaching at the Missouri School of Journalism in the 1960s and earned his master’s degree in philosophy at MU in 1976, died Sept. 20, 2012, at the age of 88 in Birmingham, Ala.

Merrill got his start at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., in the 1950s, where he was journalism teacher and adviser to Jerry Pierce, who is now the institution’s vice president of external affairs. Pierce says Merrill’s influence on his life lasted much longer than the shared classroom time. He recalls walking into the New Orleans Times-Picayune for his first job interview. Pierce spent two hours discussing current events with the editor and was offered a job on the spot. “I expected it to be tough,” Pierce recalls. “But it was a smooth transition because I faced very few things that Merrill had not prepared me to deal with. He gave me a strong foundation to go out into the workplace and make a living.”

While at MU, in addition to teaching Philosophy of Journalism, Merrill published his seminal work, Imperative of Freedom, and completed his master’s degree, resulting in another of his well-known works, Existential Journalism. Merrill was one of the first to study the international press and, according to Don Ranly, journalism professor emeritus, Merrill challenged the way the press was operating.

“He was never satisfied just talking about journalism or the First Amendment,” Ranly says. “Everyone sits around talking: Is this the right thing? What would you do in this situation? But they never say why. They don’t talk about the principles that form their judgment. Merrill just scoffed at the idea that you can talk about journalism decisions without basing them on something.”

In 2007, the Northwestern State University of Louisiana Press published Freedom Fighter: A Festschrift Honoring John C. Merrill on His Six Decades of Service to Journalism Education. Ranly wrote this of Merrill: “I want to remember the Merrill of the fall semester of 1973 when he was slaying the dragons of conformity and insisting (absolutely correctly) that journalists’ first imperative was to remain free, that journalists could never be compelled to write a story they did not think should be written, that journalists always had a choice. That’s the message of John Merrill — the message that must never die.”