Yep, just like the kids of Degrassi, what we need are tools for engaging intelligently with media, deciphering its origins and processing it.
(NOTE: After writing this piece, it was brought to my attention by Neil Anderson, president of the Association for Media Literacy and Media Studies Instructor for the Toronto District School Board that, indeed, the presence and significance of media literacy in the halls of Degrassi throughout its many show iterations was very much intentional for Linda Schuyler, Degrassi’s founder and show-runner, who co-founded Ontario’s Associaton for Media Literacy.)
The teen characters on Degrassi: The Next Generation took Media Immersion classes.
I know this because, though in my thirties (and thus far too old to be watching a teen drama) I was an avid viewer of the early seasons of the show — a modern iteration of the Canadian production I’d grown up watching on CBC, the Canadian channel we picked up in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. Media Immersion at Degrassi was about media literacy. Mr. Simpson educated students not only about how to publish a simple web page, but how to decipher and analyze the information they were exposed to everyday.
The Canadians get it. Canadian schools have taught kids media literacy for decades. (Here’s a Media Literacy Resource Guide published by the Ontario Ministry of Education in 1989.) If anything, it’s a reminder that unreliable, agenda-driven and sensationalized media has been around for a long time, even before the yellow journalism era of the late 19th century.
The infiltration of U.S. media by Russian information warfare operatives during the 2016 presidential election raised alarm bells for a lot of people who’d never thought about whether or not the media they consume is reliable, whether it is fact or fiction. The Russians also meddled in the UK’s Brexit vote, exploiting social platforms such as Facebook. The reactionary response by Facebook and by governments here and elsewhere has been to implement or call for new rules in an effort to prevent foreign entities from influencing elections.
But in our mission to ensure that social media is never again corrupted by nefarious foreign attacks, are we missing the bigger picture, and more important, are we ignoring the most effective means of combating this media scourge?
In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, media-as-battleground is nothing new. Just the other day I read about how Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban has employed media infiltration tactics to prop-up his political buddies in neighboring countries. This, from a June 4 New York Times article:
In the past two years, Hungarian businessmen close to Mr. Orban have quietly invested in, or started a handful of right-wing media outlets in Slovenia and in Macedonia. One, Skandal24, a sensationalist gossip magazine, took aim at [opponents of recent electoral winner and hardliner Janez Jansa] with salacious, thinly sourced articles. Another, the television channel Nova24TV, ran alarmist reports about migrants — and got an ‘exclusive’ interview with Mr. Orban in May.
Local Media Infiltration, Rajneesh-Style
We’d be wrong to think surreptitious media fraud in the U.S. is caused solely by foreign actors. But the culprits on our home soil aren’t just the Trump-cheerleaders at Fox News or the Trump-obsessed-to-a-fault reporting happening over at CNN that seems to ignore other important stories. The Orwellian infiltration of media by social engineers and political operatives is happening in far less detectable ways.
The Chicago Tribune reported recently about a 2016 copy of the East Central Reporter newspaper, noting, “It had a community calendar. It listed high school sports statistics. And it contained an article about a statehouse candidate’s pitch to voters.” Turns out the article was produced using funds from nonprofit Think Freely Media, which, “is forbidden by federal law from engaging in politics.” Digging deeper, the Tribune discovered that:
State Board of Elections records also show a political committee, Liberty Principles, paid the same private company to publish the story in a print newspaper and mail it. That group, which state law says must spend its money on politicking, has labeled such content political ads.
What these organizations have in common is one of the state’s most visible and controversial political figures, Dan Proft. Though Proft is known for backing conservative candidates for office through Liberty Principles, recent tax, business and campaign filings illuminate how other organizations with ties to Proft helped spread his political views through publications that showcase candidates he supports.
Proft? Heard of him? He’s in bed with Liz and Dick Uihlien, a Midwest couple that, according to a recent NY Times feature on them, has dropped $26 million to help conservative candidates in the current midterm elections. He comes from Schlitz beer money. They founded packaging supply company Uline. They’ve scooped up a town’s worth of property Rajneesh-style in Manitowish Towers, Wisconsin. Apparently she throws her money and weight around in an attempt to clean up the neighborhood, make it look more like the lily white, straight-and-narrow pleasant valley of her liking. According to the Times, “Mr. Uihlein is the largest donor to Mr. Proft’s Liberty Principles PAC, which supports hard-right candidates and funded more than a dozen publications resembling newspapers, with names like North Cook News and East Central Reporter.”
More than Sinclair, More than Citizens United
Back in April, a lot of us saw the spliced-together compilation of footage featuring reporters on Sinclair Broadcasting stations, all mouthing the same script about how “some media outlets” publish biased fake stories that are “extremely dangerous to a democracy.” The irony, of course, was that Sinclair itself has been criticized as a purveyor of agenda-led partisan media. “It’s not a cartoon right-wing operation; [it looks] like local news,” Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik told Columbia Journalism Review:
[It’s] very aggressive in covering police and schools and City Hall. The problem is when [it does] something political, [it drags] you back to realizing [its] approach. That’s what’s frustrating as a critic, because you want to be fair, but at some point you’ve seen it enough that you say, ‘There’s an agenda here, I’m sorry.’ It’s my duty to remind viewers of that, that even when it looks clean and down the middle, it might not be, because we don’t know what we’re not seeing.
Right, so in reality, perpetrators of phony information are everywhere, including right here in our smalltown papers and local Live-at-5 TV stations.
And sure, it’s important to assess the how and why behind our current media debacle.
We could talk about how Citizens United has allowed for PAC money to taint media messages. We could talk about how digital ad dollars have never caught up to the levels of print revenue that supported strong and reliable journalism for years, and about how the demise of print journalism and the effects of disruptive digital ad models have kneecapped newsrooms. We could talk about how we scoff at the notion of paying mere pennies to buy online subscriptions.
(And, hey, it’s always easy and tempting to talk about why Mark Zuckerberg is to blame.)
But none of that changes the fact that anti-democratic media weapons are being hurled at us from left and right, and that the arsenal of armaments is becoming more and more sophisticated. (Ever hear of deepfake videos, for instance?)
We Need Media Combat Training
Reactive legislation and regulations, toughening up the FCC or the FEC, or reversing Citizens United — all these things might help, but they won’t stop all the media grenades of tomorrow. Ultimately, rather than try to fight yesterday’s war so-to-speak, what we need to do is some combat training. We’re soft. We barely read past the headlines. We bathe in the complacent comfort of our social feed-enabled partisan media bubbles. We click and scan and move on, with barely an interest in our news source, which website we read it on, who wrote it, or who’s behind it.
By combat training, I am referring to one thing: media literacy. Yep, just like the kids of Degrassi, what we need are tools for engaging intelligently with media, deciphering its origins and processing it. Getting media literacy curricula in schools, particularly in this country’s damaged educational environment is not an easy task and may not be the best route. Kudos to the Massachusetts Department of Education which recently revised its curriculum Frameworks for History and Social Sciences to include an emphasis on media literacy.
Thankfully, there are people fighting on the media training front lines. Media Literacy Now advocates for media literacy education policy. A new partnership between Google, Poynter, Stanford University and the Local Media Association called MediaWise will feature curriculum to be taught in classrooms “aimed at teaching teens to tell fact from fiction online.” I’ve donated to help both of these organizations (I have no affiliation with either of them).
I wrote this essay only because I felt compelled to remind others of the need to be information-aware and support media literacy. And, hey, if we end up a little more like the kids of Degrassi, that might not hurt either.