Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Media Literacy Sells Out

Media Literacy is often considered key in fighting commercial persuasion, but might the cure be worse than the disease?

[ by Carrie McLaren ]

If there is one group of educators you’d expect to oppose the commercialization of schools, it’d be the upstarts behind media literacy. So it came as a surprise (even to her colleagues) when the founder and generally recognized guru of the U.S. media literacy movement, Renee Hobbs, started working for Channel One. An early critic of the advertising industry’s in-school news network, Hobbs later changed her mind and became a paid consultant. She is now overseeing Channel One’s latest venture: a media literacy curriculum.

Another key player in the ML movement–the "nonprofit" Center for Media Literacy–has also signed on as a partner with Channel One.

Like any burgeoning discipline, ML is rife with debates within the field. Everyone appears to agree on one point: understanding media is essential because media affect so much of our reality. But educators who see media and commercialism as separate issues see a different reality than, say, Wally Bowen of Citizens for Media Literacy, based in North Carolina. "There’s a tendency to focus on what’s on screen rather than looking at power relationships," he says. "How is the Channel One contract signed? How do competing messages get silenced? This is media literacy."

Others say such larger debates open up an ideological can of worms and prefer analyzing media without scrutinzing the market that delivers it. This desire to separate media from marketing helps explain educators’ acceptance of corporate curricula–even when they consider commercialism problematic. John Pungente, SJ, of the Jesuit Communications Project in Ontario, for instance, helped lead a grassroots effort to get YNN (Channel One’s Canadian equivalent) out of schools. Nonetheless, Pungente has helped align the Canadian movement with the film and television industries. Pungente has been a vocal supporter of Cable in the Classroom, backed by the national Cable Television Association, which provides "commericial-free" cable television and study guides to schools. One such program, produced by Much Music, Canada’s MTV equivalent, asks questions such as: "What would your parents say if you started dressing like Marilyn Manson? Why?" And: "What musical style does [Crash Test Dummies singer Brad Roberts’s] clothing match?"

Much Music also broaches questions about gender, race, class, and advertising tactics. In fact, ignoring the fluffier portions of Cable’s programming (teachers are, after all, encouraged to pick and choose) begs the question: What if these corporate materials do reveal advertising strategies? What exactly does that accomplish?

Critics of companies like Channel One have assumed that corporations are threatened by media literacy and therefore want to co-opt it. Bob McCannon of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, one of Renee Hobbs’ fiercest critics, has suggested that media deconstructions like those in his group’s materials–analyzing everything from the addictive behavior in Hackers to subliminal persuasion in Alpha-Bits and Peter Jennings newscasts–rile the powers that be. Yet some of the practices advocated by media literacy teachers are in fact well-worn advertising strategies. Having recognized public skepticism early on, advertisers have over the years used ads (whether in the form of pamphlets, newsreels, or videos) to reveal how images are manipulated, packages designed, and slogans chosen. P. T. Barnum, for example, actively encouraged criticism of his exhibits. He wrote letters to the editor (under a pseudonym) debunking his own attractions. As Barnum would say, if he should swindle a man out of $20, the man would give a quarter to hear him tell about it.

Today, this tactic can be seen in "anti-ads" that critique or mock advertising (Nike, Sprite, Diesel). Such efforts can be seen as attempts to co-opt media literate criticism, but this assumes such criticism is a threat in the first place. From an advertiser’s point of view, media literacy may not even need to be co-opted; it may in fact just make its subject all the more compelling. In the words of historian Daniel Boorstin, "an image . . . becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it."

Says Jean Lotus of White Dot (a newsletter for TV-free life): "During TV-Turnoff week in 1998, the National Cable Television Association sent out press releases saying that TV-turnoffs weren’t the answer, but ‘critical viewing’ was." Similarly, the Learning Channel and Time Warner Cable (with a curriculum by Renee Hobbs) have sponsored Know TV Week–a not-so-subtle rejoinder to those practicing "no tv." Industry may very well have less to fear from students watching, however critically or intelligently, than tuning out. What better way to counter the maxim that TV makes you stupid?

Of course, to many ML teachers, none of this is a big deal. When push comes to shove, ML is considered important because media is everywhere. But at a time when kids are said to be spending nearly 40 hours a week with (mostly electronic) media in addition to school, wouldn’t the goals of ML be better served by helping provide more of a sense of unmediated reality? Or at least a reality not centered on commerical, mass-media crap? One can learn about African-American stereotypes by analyzing The Cosby Show, but also by interviewing community leaders, tracing geographic patterns, and reading African-American literature. (Keep in mind that while media literacy is considered an integral "bridge to the new millenium," history isn’t; most states lack a history requirement in grade school.)

Concentrating on the overwhelming impact of mass media can actually extend its power. With such an emphasis, media literacy undermines the alternatives that do exist. A girl inspired by Acme Novelty Library comics, Herman Melville, or her marine biology club has a perspective on Dawson’s Creek that your 16-year-old media savant lacks. Which isn’t to imply that deconstructing Budweiser commercials or criticizing TV news can’t be valuable lessons in a proper context. It is simply to say that if one hopes to engage students with the real world, taking apart the ABCs & NBCs isn’t going to work without something other than cable channels and cola ads to take their place.

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