Channel One Enters the Media Literacy Movement

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“It’s gotten to the point where when I ask kids how school is going, they talk about the cool commercials they saw in class today,” Annerino says. Annerino is challenging what she calls “creeping commercialism” in the classroom, by offering media literacy workshops to students and teachers. The workshops are designed to teach young people how to analyze and understand the barrage of messages they receive daily from television, radio, computers, and advertising. Students in Annerino’s workshops pick apart print and television advertisements and analyze how advertisers target and manipulate teenagers into buying certain products and brands.

Last June, when Annerino heard that some 300 media literacy teachers from around the country were gathering in St. Paul, MN, for a National Media Education Conference (NMEC), she was eager to attend and swap teaching tips with colleagues. Walking into the conference headquarters however, she was surprised to discover that some of the very same corporate media giants she was dissecting in the classroom were underwriting the conference. Channel One, it turned out, was the conference’s main financial sponsor, to the tune of some $30,000, and most visible presence. Time-Warner, Turner Broadcasting, and Discovery Communications, were also sponsors.

“I felt undermined and betrayed,” Annerino says. “Here I am talking to parents and teachers about resisting Channel One’s commercialism of schools, and Channel One shows up touting themselves as media educators.”

Annerino is not alone in her criticism. A number of prominent media educators refused to attend the NMEC to protest Channel One’s sponsorship. Angry conference attendees, meanwhile, forced the meeting’s organizers to hold a special session to defend and debate Channel One’s presence. And the controversy has hardly ended there, spilling over into local media literacy meetings and Internet discussion groups.

“Channel One could be the dividing line over which the media literacy movement splits,” says Al Race, a media educator from Boston and editor of Cable in the Classroom. Cable in the Classroom is the magazine of the Cable in the Classroom consortium, a non-profit corporation funded by 40 cable companies including Time-Warner and small local networks. “It’s certainly a critical moment in the U.S. movement, and this [the debate over Channel One] is an important reason why,” says John Pungente, director of the Jesuit Communication Project in Toronto, Canada, and one of the acknowledged leaders of the international media education movement.

While media literacy is well established in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia, where it is a mandatory part of the school curriculum, it is relatively new in the United States. Until recently, media literacy’s U.S. backers made up a small and hardy band with little institutional curricular support. But in the wake of school shootings like the one in Littleton, CO, and with growing concern over violence in the media, media literacy programs are suddenly in demand. In the last few years, seven states have incorporated media literacy into their K-12 curriculum.

“The best way to promote media literacy,” says Elizabeth Thoman, founder of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, “is to build it into the standards and frameworks of student requirements and make it a focus of teacher education.”

Even as its advocates struggle to have media literacy accepted in public schools, the movement itself is mired in a debate over its identity and purpose: Is media literacy’s main goal to help students become more sophisticated consumers of media? Or is its goal also to “teach them to engage and challenge the economic and political power of media institutions”? as Sut Jhally, Professor of Communications at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, puts it.

Which is where Channel One comes in.

On the surface, Channel One seems an unlikely advocate of media literacy. Founded in 1989 by controversial entrepreneur Chris Whittle, and now owned by Primemedia Inc., Channel One offers schools a sweet deal: It provides each school with free TVs, VCRs, and satellite dishes as long as the school agrees to air the network’s daily 12 minutes of news broadcast and two minutes of commercial advertisements to 80% of its students on 90% of school days. Channel One is beamed daily to 12,000 middle and high schools and is watched by 40% of American teenagers. According to the network, the show is broadcast in 48 states, with its strongest base in the south. In Texas, 1,000 schools air the broadcast daily, the largest number in any state.

Channel One has been controversial from the start. In the early 1990s, some 50 educational organizations, including the National Education Association, the national PTA, and the National School Board Association, declared their opposition to Channel One. New York and California went so far as to ban the program from their public schools (a ban since rescinded in California). The network has come under even more heat this year. An unlikely coalition, led by consumer activist Ralph Nader and conservative Phyllis Schlafly, has launched a campaign to oust Channel One from public schools. The Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee examined the company’s practices at a hearing in May. And in June, the 15.9 million member Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging its members to resist the “advertising assault of the network.”

In response, Channel One has launched an intense lobbying effort to improve its image. This year, the company paid a prominent Washington lobbying firm $820,000 to represent it in Washington, and it hired former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed to lobby conservative activists and educators. Paul Folkemer, Channel One’s vice president for education, denies there is any connection between the network’s financial courting of the media literacy movement and the company’s lobbying efforts. But he says the company is trying to get the word about Channel One’s “mainstream news program,” out to educators.

Channel One’s entree into media literacy has been smoothed by Renee Hobbs, the Director of the Media Literacy Project at Babson College in Wellesley, MA, – and a paid consultant to Channel One. A founder of the U.S. media literacy movement and perhaps its most well-known and articulate promoter, Hobbs was once a Channel One critic. Her opinion changed, she says, while observing the program being used in the Billerica, MA, public schools. “It was clear to me that the show served an educational purpose and could help teachers,” Hobbs says. “Even the advertisements can be used for lessons.”

Hobbs has developed a set of media literacy lesson plans to accompany Channel One broadcasts that will be distributed free to tenth-grade Channel One users beginning in February 2000. The lesson plans use basic media literacy techniques such as categorizing different types of news programs (hard news, soft news, etc.) and decoding the meaning of advertisements – though no Channel One news segments or ads will be used as examples. Hobbs insists that her involvement with Channel One is motivated only by the desire to get media literacy into more schools. “If I gave workshops every day for the rest of my life, I could never reach the eight million children Channel One reaches every day,” she says. Hobbs dismisses the network’s critics as hopelessly out of step. “Channel One is here to stay, and we need to work with them, not least to keep them honest,” she says. “It’s nostalgia to think that schools can return to some kind of pure commercial-free environment that never existed in the first place.”

Hobbs’ critics strongly feel otherwise. “No media literacy movement worthy of the name can possibly be a friend to Channel One,” contends Mark Crispin-Miller, a professor of culture and communication at New York University, who has written extensively on Channel One. “The program is not intended to educate students; it is intended to sell things to them. If media teachers don’t make it clear to kids exactly why Channel One is in the schools, then he or she has failed them.” To Bob McCannon, the director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project which works in public schools around the country, the dalliance with Channel One is a sure sign that “media literacy is being hijacked by corporate interests who are using the movement to buy legitimacy and deflect criticism of their products.”

At the Media Literacy Conference in Minneapolis, a small group of educators, informally gathered together to discuss the future of the movement, expressed another concern: In its eagerness to be accepted by the mainstream education establishment, media educators will shy away from political activism or from challenging the power of corporate media. “Already in certain settings, if you try to talk about the ownership of the media, or the political economy of media, or power relationships, you are labeled an ‘advocate’ or as ‘biased,'” said Wally Bowen, the founder of Citizens for Media Literacy in Asheville, NC.

Many in the U.S. movement look to the work of their Canadian colleagues for inspiration. There, media educators have been leaders of the political campaign to prevent Youth Network News (YNN), a Canadian Channel One clone, from getting a foothold in provincial schools. So far, they have succeeded in getting YNN banned in six out of ten provinces.

“There’s no contradiction between education and activism,” says Canada’s John Pungente. “It is absolutely essential that media teachers speak out and express themselves, including about commercialism in the classroom.”

Steven Manning is currently researching commercialization as an Open Society Institute fellow.