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Classroom TV Can Become a Lesson in Media Criticism

<i> Jay Rosen is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University</i>

Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tenn., wants to give 8,000 American high schools $250 million worth of TV sets, video recorders and satellite dishes. In return, the schools must promise to make “Channel One,” Whittle’s daily 12-minute newscast that includes two minutes of commercials, required viewing for all students. How bad a bargain is it? Not bad at all, I think, if teachers realize what Whittle and its advertisers have provided them: A free casebook for a course in media criticism.

So far, the possibility seems to have been ignored. Education groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Assn. and the National PTA have already come out against the program, which premiered Monday in a five-week test at six high schools, including one in Cerritos, Calif. Peggy Charren of Action for Children’s Television, a citizen’s group, has called the students a “captive audience” and the program “an advertiser’s dream.”

Neither charge is entirely true. The students are required to come to school and to view “Channel One”; in that sense they are indeed captive. But as experienced television watchers, teen-agers know quite a bit about advertising. They are not likely to take the ads very seriously--unless, of course, teachers ask them to take them seriously.

That is exactly what should happen. The commercials and the newscast ought to become the focus of a daily discussion about the manipulative tactics of advertising, the vagaries of a consumer culture, the uses and misuses of imagery, the limitations of television news, and the power and reach of modern communications. These are important lessons for any citizen of the electronic age, and students are often eager to learn them. But such lessons will be lost unless teachers go out of their way to encourage criticism and discussion.

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A classroom full of listless teen-agers, dutifully attending to television as one more routine in a dreary school day, may very well be an advertiser’s dream. Part of what makes a TV audience valuable to an advertiser is the passivity and silence of the viewer. But anyone who has watched television with a large group of friends knows how tempting it is to comment on the show and poke fun at the commercials.

When we’re surrounded by others we know and trust, advertising’s attempts to fill us with fear or promise us the world can seem ludicrously overblown. Watching television together, we may still be an audience, but we also have an audience--each other. The impulse to talk back to the box for our own amusement (and protection) is a natural one. A classroom, then, is an ideal environment for talking back to television, and the fact that “Channel One” carries advertisements only gives teachers and students more to talk about.

To offer the materials for a daily exercise in media criticism is not, of course, the aim of Whittle Communications. There is no reason to think the company has anything but its own profits in mind. Indeed, there is something frightening in the decision by schools to subject their pupils to “Channel One.” It is one thing when students park themselves in front of the TV set at home and choose to endure the ad. It is quite another when school, in effect, sells access to its students’ minds for a fee, especially when attendance is mandated. What theory of custodianship gives school officials the right to barter away the time and attention of their pupils? I can see none.

Christopher Whittle, chairman of the company that bears his name, has argued that if government funds cannot meet the needs of the schools, then other sources, like “Channel One,” ought to be found. But surely Charren has a point when she says that the proper solution to inadequate funding for the schools is more government support, not the privatization of public education.

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All of these objections must be admitted. But so must the opportunity Whittle has unwittingly extended to educators. Whatever the circumstances that brought them there, commercials do have a place in the schools, as objects of study and targets of criticism.

Whittle doesn’t apologize to teachers for trying to turn their classrooms into just another profit center. Teachers shouldn’t apologize for subverting the goals of his program and instructing their students in the art of critical viewing.


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