It was difficult not to enjoy watching Hollywood squirm the other day. The Senate Commerce Committee, in response to the recent report that revealed how movie studios target-market R-rated movies to kids, had called on executives from the eight major film companies to testify at hearings held 10 days ago in Washington. The suits glanced at their Palm Pilots and said, "Sorry, baby, can't pencil you in." Sen. John McCain, who chairs the committee, was not amused.
So there they were on Wednesday, looking like eight guilty and slightly defensive adolescents -- the very kids, in fact, that they so ardently court as an audience.
They professed to be shocked, shocked at the corporate practices found by the Federal Trade Commission during a year-long study of Hollywood marketing plans. They trotted out a hastily prepared 12-point program in which they vowed never more to "inappropriately specifically target children" for movies rated R for violence. Most promised not to advertise those films during the "family hour" of television viewing, or in teen-oriented magazines.
Some even said they would include the reasons for ratings in their advertisements, so that filmgoers will know whether a movie contains violence, sexuality or strong language. It's a move that many parents and critics have long called for, but one that Motion Picture Association of American president Jack Valenti has always insisted was impossible because of space.
The senators did a good job of skewering the executives' cravenness and hypocrisy; the executives did a good job of wrapping themselves in the cloak of parenthood (they all seem to be the parents of two daughters, aged 9 and 11) and contrition.
But in all the 12 points and in the two and a half hours of testimony, nowhere were two crucial words uttered: "media literacy."
Media literacy is a familiar concept to some educators, and to some lucky parents and children. It means the ability to apprehend, analyze and think critically about not just what you read, but what you take in from movies, television, records and the Internet. In this age of multiplying information streams, literacy about the media is as indispensable for our kids as literacy about what they read.
In fact, Maryland is a trailblazer in teaching media literacy. A year and a half ago, after the shootings at Columbine, Judith McHale decided to take action. The president of the state board of education and the president of the Discovery Channel, McHale was concerned about the role media might have played in the shootings. She contracted with Renee Hobbs, a media literacy specialist at Babson College in Boston to create a curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students to give them the tools they need to think critically about the barrage of images thrown at them every day.
So far, 16 of the 24 local school boards have sent their teachers to be trained in media literacy (the program is recommended but not mandated by the state board). The teachers come back to their classrooms with curricula in which students examine everything from the daily newspaper to history lessons to video games, and are taught to deconstruct what biases and agendas their producers might have, what reactions they're trying to elicit and why.
"There is a point of view to [every] story, and also somebody's point of view has been left out," says Lynn Widdowson, staff specialist in student services and alternative programs for the state Department of Education. "We're trying to give kids the skills that will get them to be critical viewers and readers of the media, and not to take what they see for granted."
In another encouraging development, educators at Johns Hopkins University are in the process of developing a crash course in media literacy for undergraduates during the January intercession. The undergraduates will then develop an outreach program whereby they teach media literacy in the surrounding Baltimore community, according to Hopkins administrator Deborah Cebula, who is developing the curriculum with film critic and instructor Linda DeLibero.
Observers often point to Canada, Europe and Australia as examples of places where, even though they consume America's violent pop culture, teen violence and violence in general are not a problem. One reason is that they have centralized education systems, which make media literacy a mandatory part of kids' schooling. In the United States, where politicians are bent on decentralizing education, the effort is far more slapdash.
Both Widdowson and Hobbs emphasize that media literacy isn't taught just in school, but at home. "Parents don't have the tools they need to help kids be critical viewers," says Hobbs, "and yet it's relatively easy for us to give them those tools."