I keep hearing about "media literacy" and find I'm intrigued by the concept. I heard a presentation on it by an Albuquerque Academy teacher and a panel of students a few years ago and my curiosity has grown ever since, whetted by occasional references to it.
As I recall, it involves learning to read (or listen or watch) between the lines so that as you grow more skilled at it, you can eventually understand what is really being communicated in any particular message. It means figuring out how our emotions are being manipulated by the ad, the program or the speaker to influence us in the desired direction.
It involves, in other words, the exact opposite attitude from the one that Madison Avenue and the communications industry want the viewing public to have: total, gaping and profoundly unquestioning acceptance of whatever is being dished out.
Instead, the media literate reader or viewer will ask questions like "why?," "since when?" and "who's benefiting?" and respond with comments like: "never happened," "no way" and "get real." You can see how dangerous this sort of thing might be if it ever caught on.
I thought about media literacy yesterday as I checked my e-mail and found two items in my mailbox. One was a piece about Congresswoman Heather Wilson's blistering attack on CBS television and Viacom for the Super Bowl halftime fiasco involving an entertainer's suddenly bared breast.
The second was publicity about the new annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue hitting newsstands now—complete with a startling sample of photos taken from the issue of models with (surprise) bared breasts!
(At this point I need to issue a full disclosure statement for those of you who only pick up the Alibi for the articles: this publication has also, on occasion, filled several of its back pages with pictures of models –many of them women—topless. Yes, it has happened.)
It used to be that Sports Illustrated's mid-winter swimsuit issue would regularly elicit angry letters from teaching nuns and school librarians at elementary and secondary schools throughout middle America demanding that the magazine immediately cancel their school's subscription to such tasteless, immoral journalism.
I don't know if the good sisters and the dedicated librarians of our nation still react in that fashion. Lord knows the fetching, eye-catching beauties in SI's pages seem tame indeed compared to what's available to our young people on the Internet, MTV videos and neighborhood newsstands.
And the smutty, leering story lines and humor of many network sitcoms watched by millions weekly make it a little hard for me to believe that suddenly seeing 99 percent of Janet Jackson's breast exposed proved traumatic for very many (like zero, if you discount Wilson) Americans.
For me, the most delicious among the many ironies of the whole episode was that CBS had spent the week before the Super Bowl stonewalling efforts to run the half minute-long winning entrant in the Moveon.Org video contest for the best commercial about the Bush administration.
"We won't desecrate the hallowed Super Bowl by running anything controversial" was the pious rationale given by the network for not accepting a paid advertisement that showed America's children putting in long hours of hard labor to pay the bill for Bush's budget policies. So instead they ran sophomoric ads for beer, impotence cures and junk food—and a halftime show that generated far more controversy than Moveon.Org's winner could ever have.
Which reminds me about media literacy; reading between the lines.
What does it say when Heather Wilson explodes self-righteously over an exposed breast ... but not over the murderous body count on any weeknight of network shows? Why does seeing a naked body cause indignation, but the hate-filled, violent lyrics of much of what's shown on MTV, VH-1 and other "entertainment" channels favored by the young not draw comment?
The message seems clear: Pretend, please, that this country has not sold its soul for bread, skin and circuses. Act, please, as if we as a society retain traditional moral values. Ignore, please, our eager conversion of anything and everything into the language of the bottom line. Don't mention, please, that none of that is true—just pretend, along with the rest of us.
So, maybe, Wilson appears courageous to some of the voters. The network seems genuinely concerned about what happened and firmly resolved that it will not reoccur. America's parents feel vindicated because sober morality is supported.
And our children, perhaps the only truly media literate among us, will have gotten the full impact of the message: It doesn't matter; no one really cares what you do--as long as you turn a profit.
We've ceded full control over the national television airways to corporations, so don't be shocked that those soulless institutions are prepared to push the envelope just as far as the flow of dollars back justifies. After all, it's just business, as they remind us on the "Sopranos".
That may be how media literacy is best defined: recognizing that at its most fundamental level the message is always business. Propping up opportunistic politicians; peddling Viagra; encouraging beer guzzling and rapping violence-
But don't you dare run any ads that'd call business as usual into question. Now that'd be controversial.