Few books have the ability to make me feel equal parts intelligent and ignorant at the same time. Jay Newman’s The Journalist in Plato’s Cave is one of those books where you close the cover feeling full of new ideas and yet surprised you didn’t know them in the first place. It challenged my thoughts about how philosophers define the essence of journalism and also reinforced my deep-held belief in the industry’s ability to affect change.
“Now, more than ever, philosophers have been attempting to convince an often skeptical world that they still have much to offer in the way of fresh, relevant humanistic insight. Yet, a substantial body of philosophical literature on something as important as journalism has not even begun to emerge” (Newman, 1989, p. 16). Newman and I are reluctantly in the same camp on this issue. Thus is his reason for writing this book.
The book reads as a clear commentary about two distinct ideas: how philosophers have failed to apply their highbrow intellect to the field of journalism; and how journalists have failed to use philosophical approaches to correcting some of the industry’s ethical dilemmas. “The philosopher may read newspapers and other public journals, may enjoy them, and may learn from them, but he can hardly avoid being uncomfortable with the recognition that unlike the physician, pilot, soldier, or carpenter, the journalist is one of the philosopher’s greatest rivals” (Newman, p. 17).
Newman’s main premise, although disguised in page after page of thick academic writing, basically claims that in order to solve real problems in society and the industry, philosophers and journalists must use the collective wisdom of both fields for the good of the public. A critic of the book explains Newman’s theory of how this might look.
“Jay Newman would have the philosopher, liberated as he is from gazing at the shadows of puppets in Plato’s cave, return to the darkness and educate the puppeteers who are journalists. It is not quite clear whether Newman thinks the journalists are bright enough to be liberated themselves…” (R.C., 1992, p. 695).
He also plays devil’s advocate by saying that a philosopher might say a journalist’s influence on public opinion is ephemeral and arbitrary. “He writes about all sorts of things, but unlike the scholar, he knows relatively little about the subjects he discusses. He is merely involved in a business, the selling of news and opinions; and like the sophists of old, his success is largely a function of his ability to tell his readers in the general public more or less whatever they want to hear” (Newman, p. 20). On this issue, Newman makes a fair point that journalists themselves may not be the ones to solve the problems.
Another critic interpreted Newman’s theories differently though, giving journalists more power than what I observed through the reading. “The bad news for journalists is they have been assigned the role of puppeteers in the cave (an aspect Plato neglected), but the good news is that the puppeteers and not just the philosophers are liberators” (White, 1989, p. 409). And to some extent, I agree with this statement. I just don’t think Newman does.
Regardless of the book’s many merits, his ideas about the philosophical study of journalism stand on the cliff of insight yet fail to fully take the leap. Yes, the book is historically one of the first published works directly discussing the philosophy of journalism. And yes, his writing is densely populated with relevant and accurate thoughts that at the time of their publication were probably novel.
But since its publication in 1989, scholars and philosophers alike wasted no time in studying the business, ethics, and practice of journalism. I regret that Newman didn’t live long enough to see how journalists themselves are tackling those philosophical questions today. But he is to be applauded for his efforts to bring to light ideas that were all but nonexistent before his book.
Jay Newman was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada, and has published dozens of works in periodicals such as Ethics, Philosophy, Dialectica, and the American Philosophical Quarterly.
References (APA Style)
Luciana, P. (2007, July 11). Jay Newman. The Globe and Mail,
Newman, J. (1989). The journalist in Plato's cave. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses.
Philosophy documentation center. International journal of applied philosophy. (2015). , 2015, from https://libproxy.library.unt.edu:4516/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=ijap&id=ijap_1982_0001_0002_0020_0030
R.C. (1992). Book notes. Ethics, 102(3), 695. Retrieved fromhttp://libproxy.library.unt.edu:2069/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9401060056&scope=site
White, D. E. (1990). The journalist in Plato's cave: A book review. Teaching Philosophy, 13(4), 409.
(P. S. I know this photo doesn't really fit, but it visually illustrates the happiness that ensued from reading books like Newman's.)