MEDIA LITERACY commentary
KUNM-FM radio – Jim Terr © 2009 LISTEN
I was gratified to hear that a bill to promote media literacy made it through the House and Senate, and has only to be signed into law by the Governor. Actually I was glad to hear that the subject even came up, because I’ve long considered media literacy one of the main issues – and one of the missing elements – in our awareness and in our educational system. If there’s a survival skill for our time, this is it.
Media literacy involves learning to dissect and understand the advertising messages with which the average child, for instance, is bombarded for over six hours per day – mostly from TV.
And only with a little training can we become aware of the various techniques by which we’re persuaded to buy the incredible amounts of unnecessary stuff that we buy, to be made to feel bad if we don’t, to feel a gnawing lack and general insecurity that can only be made right by going shopping.
State Representative Moe Maestas of Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill, says he’s concerned that 63% of 12-year-old girls are insecure about their bodies – and he points out that they didn’t learn that at home, but from media images and messages. Well, maybe some of them did learn it at home, from parents who are also hypnotized by the TV and equally unaware of what they’re being brainwashed with.
The New Mexico Media Literacy Project, a leader in this field nationally, points out that it’s not just TV, but also “radio, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, signs, packaging, marketing materials, video games, recorded music, the Internet, and other forms of media” which supply these complex messages.
The problem is indeed beyond TV advertising and even beyond consumerism. It’s spin in general, which allows our politicians, talk show hosts, demagogues and PR firms to get away with outrageous mis-labeling, mis-logic, mis-information and phony statistics – and crazy politics. Only by understanding the game, the PR techniques, can we be inoculated against this spin, and see our way through this muddy soup to some understanding of what’s going on, and empowerment to do something about it.
** I’ve tried to do my bit, I believe, having agitated for this for years, including on these very airwaves, and having developed a TV show – something that could even be broadcast from right here in New Mexico – called “Let’s Play Spin Doctor.” The idea is that a panel of high-school-age PR geniuses would compete at spinning, skewing, mis-representing and demagoguing, just like the big folks do. The attention-getter is that it’s young people who are being corrupted and doing the corrupting, and in the process the gaping national audience becomes more aware of the PR and spin techniques with which they’re bombarded every day.
When the Media Literacy Bill becomes law, it will be up to local school districts to adopt Media Literacy classes into their curricula, and I very much hope they will.
first "floated" this idea, in slightly different form,
in this essay published in 2001 and
broadcast in 2005: (More relevant than ever before, and getting more so by the day)
Jim Terr sneak-previews Stephen
Soderbergh's latest film, featuring an unbelievable all-star cast:
Susan Sarandon, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, Annette Bening, Martin
Sheen, LeeLee Sobieski, and Haley Joel Osment
the Eldorado Sun, (now Sun Monthly) February 2001
Saw This Great Movie....I Wish! By Jim
whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and
hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless
series of hobgoblins..." -H.L. Mencken
An Internet search finds 13,500 entries under "demagoguery"
and almost 16,000 for "demagogue", yet most people are not
familiar with the term. Webster's definition of a demagogue is "one
who seeks to gain personal or partisan advantage by specious or extravagant
claims, promises or charges."
Soderbergh's new star-studded but low-budget film, "Young
Demagogues' School," employs
a broader meaning of the word, encompassing advertising, corporate
and political public relations and propaganda, euphemism, calculated
rectitude and good-old-boyism and deceitful punditry of all sorts. I'll go along with this more inclusive definition, since it covers
the whole range of media manipulation and spin control which assaults
and attempts to mislead us on a daily basis.
premise of this new Miramax release is best described by a 1998 cartoon
that appeared in The New Yorker: A small child in a suit and tie is
declaiming self-righteously at a tiny lectern, his right hand raised
in oath-taking position, while his mother,
watching from the next
room, says to a friend, "With the Suzuki method, they start them
campaigning as early as three or four."
In "Young Demagogue's School," an exclusive prep school evidently located somewhere in upstate New
York prepares young people to practice the skills of deceit which seek to dominate our political, commercial, cultural and even
emotional lives, and which prop up the "culture war" which
has replaced the external enemies of the Cold War.
the "Rush Limbaugh Master Class," young demagogues-in-training
are guided in the fine art of demonizing their opponents. In this
disturbing sequence, Haley Joel Osment (the wonderful young co-star
of "The Sixth Sense") draws a classmate's name from
a hat, silently peruses a questionnaire listing her views on such
mundane things as sports, fast food and music, and then cheerfully
turns everything he knows about her into a withering attack on her
character, intelligence and intentions -- almost as skillfully as
the "master" himself.
mentor in this scene, Susan Sarandon (playing very much against type,
or at least against her own real-life progressive political stance),
combines a seemingly motherly instinct with a scary understanding
of the manipulative techniques of advertising and P.R., and a ruthless
determination to instill it in her young subjects.
Another frightening but funny sequence has Sarandon and her ditzy
co-instructor, Annette Bening, leading the rowdy class through an
exercise in framing a series of heinous political and corporate acts
as good things we can't possibly live without, using the warm, fuzzy,
soft-focus, saccharine-piano, "Morning in America" TV ad
approach that seems to work so well for everything from ketchup to
candidates -- and in giving them euphemistic, saleable titles.
flip side, portraying good acts and initiatives as the greatest threats
to democracy since Adolph Hitler, is practiced
by our young demagogues using the growling, threatening, rumbling
commercial style heard so often in political "issue ad"
campaigns. Watching the students master these techniques and voices
is at once fascinating and disquieting.
emerges throughout the film is a bleak, sardonic view of a world controlled
by spin doctors and their manipulative ads, phony news stories and
industry-sponsored "astroturf" (as opposed to real "grassroots")
citizen group campaigns. This is the Kafkaesque universe parodied
weekly in Tom Tomorrow's comic strip, This Modern World, and
by such cartoons as one that appeared in Time Magazine after Hillary
Clinton's health care plan bit the dust in an industry-orchestrated
orgy of recrimination: "Then came the TV scare ads: 'The Government
wants to tear down our health care system and force us to have surgery
performed by Motor Vehicle Bureau clerks!!'"
owner and headmaster of the Young Demagogues' School, Martin Sheen
(in a sharp departure from his usual television role as a liberal
US President) does a chilling turn as a Machiavellian proponent of
mastering demagoguery both as a career skill and as a defense against
other demagogues. His simultaneous pursuit of both Bening and seductive
student LeeLee Sobieski (Joan of Arc), effortlessly conducted behind
the back of his hapless wife, Julia Roberts, represents an Oscar®-worthy
performance for both Sheen and Bening.
mention is due to the ubiquitous Russell Crowe, who, in an amusing
but unsettling sequence as the school's only male instructor (oddly,
involved in none of the romantic or murderous sub-plots swirling around
the other characters), tutors young Rory Culkin (late of You Can
Count on Me) and Sobieski in the use of biting but innocuous-sounding
"code words," in pretending to attentively listen to and
advise a clueless President while in fact telling him what to think,
and in subtly re-stating an opponent's position in terms that make
him seem heartless and ignorant.
fact, virtually all the tools of the advertising and PR trades are
starkly exposed in this funny and touching yet disturbing film, which
will premiere nationally later this month.
this movie will appear about the same time they make a film about
America's most interesting character, Ben Franklin -- which is to
say, probably never. But I can dream, can't I?
North has emerged as yet another hero on the political scene who skillfully
employs references to his family and his moral virtue to divert attention
from the magnitude of his immoral actions. His performance has been
is touching deep emotional chords in the American public with his
ramrod manner, his love of country and family and his insistence that
all his actions have been undertaken in the service of his government.
He possesses the defiant, arrogant style of the righteous, at once
subservient to those above him who agree with his vision and contemptuous
of all those who refuse to believe.
is self confident and assured; he speaks from a deep reservoir of
certainty that may be related to a strong religious conviction...he
has mastered the dramatic pause and indignant tone needed to present
himself as the faithful servant of his leaders.
chilling example of "calculated rectitude and good-old-boyism"
courtesy of James M. Wall in The Christian Century, July 15,
Fean Jim Terr is a song satirist, actor and video producer
who lives at www.Jim Terr.com.