TV Tells 'em in Their Own Language

MIKE BOWLER

September 12, 1992|By MIKE BOWLER

Superintendent Walter Amprey had just begun his standard speech about ''taking our schools back,'' when suddenly the TV screen in the library at Forest Park High School sprang to life.

It was Channel One, the daily 12-minute program of news and features now beamed into 47 Baltimore secondary schools and sponsored this particular morning by Gatorade. Dr. Amprey and a gaggle of politicians and educators accompanying him on an opening-week school tour watched with fascination.

So did a group of special-education students down the hall in Room 226. This was a captive audience; no one got up to go to the bathroom or change stations when Channel One started pushing Michael Jordan's favorite thirst-quencher.

It's a slick package, this program produced for profit by Christopher Whittle, the media entrepreneur who has drawn the wrath of numerous educators and public-school purists. Channel One has been banned in New York and (until a judge lifted the ban Wednesday) in California, censured by the nation's largest teachers' union, declared unconstitutional in New Jersey and even picketed in Texas.

But it's become big business. The California ruling should lead to further expansion for the Whittle program, already viewed by about 8.1 million students in 11,800 of the nation's 29,000 public secondary schools. Whittle Communications' revenue from the two minutes of commercials on each show is $630,000.

On this early fall day, Channel One covered the hurricane-relief efforts in Florida, the new Census Bureau report on poverty in the U.S., starvation in Somalia, fetal-tissue research and child abuse -- in short, the Sturm und Drang of a typical evening newscast. The difference is that Channel One news is delivered by a pair of freshly scrubbed teen-age anchors, and it's somewhat more explanatory than the regular brand. (It is, after all, beamed into schools.)

Media critics like Mark Crispin Miller and Jerome Christensen of Johns Hopkins University have almost nothing good to say about Channel One. Studies thus far have shown it to have almost no educational value, and Mr. Miller says it is a thinly disguised pusher of the products, services and viewpoints of Whittle Communications and its investors, Time Warner and Philips Electronics, the Dutch multinational. (The broadcast beamed to Forest Park High School was assiduously neutral. It did a good job of presenting both sides of the fetal-tissue issue, and, discussing the poverty figures, one of the anchors said, ''Poverty is expected to be a big issue in the upcoming election, and you can bet each party will blame the other for causing it.'')

Why, asks Mr. Christensen, install Channel One with its commercials when you could have CNN's ''Newsroom,'' another current events daily broadcast without advertising?

The answer in Baltimore's case is that CNN costs money. Channel One seems to be free because Whittle provides the equipment in return for a school system's agreeing to expose students to its news and commercials. Never mind that there was little preparation this summer for launching the program, that most teachers and parents weren't consulted or that Channel One has no proven track record. Baltimore is an educational panhandler palming a dollar bill, and Mr. Whittle knows that full well.

Yet there is another side to the Channel One dispute. In Room 226 at Forest Park, special-education teacher Patricia Petrosino watched her students watch the program and spoke of its calming influence. ''It's a good way to start the day,'' she said. ''Even if the students don't learn anything from the program, they get in the mood for the rest of the school day. Look how wrapped up they are in it. I'm hoping it's not just because of the newness of it.''

The point is that it's not new. We adults forget that television is the medium of today's students. By the thousands of hours, the box speaks to them as few of their teachers can. ''Most of them aren't watching broadcast news, and few of them read newspapers,'' said Annette Hall, the Forest Park principal. Meanwhile, Baltimore high school students fail the statewide citizenship test in droves.

So a question for the Channel One critics: If city students aren't exposed to current events in the only language they understand, where will they get more effective exposure?

From their teachers?

Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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