Stop Selling, Start Educating
Labor Day celebrates America's workers by giving them a holiday. For working teachers, like myself, Labor Day also brings the beginning of the school year. I enjoy my work because I value the opportunity to teach young minds how to think critically and reason ethically about their environment and themselves. Like other teachers, my goals are to feed young minds and prepare them for the larger world.
But there are obstacles to my educational goals, perhaps the biggest of which comes from the mass media, not just programming but advertising, too. Last year, $54 billion was spent on broadcast advertising. The average child sees 30,000 commercials a year, despite the wishes of 85 percent of parents that children's TV programs be "commercial free." At the same time, a recent study found 75 percent of high school students are "not proficient in civics," that is, they can not "apply knowledge of government principles of democracy analytically." Both schools and television must share responsibility for this problem.
Perhaps the most egregious development has been the expansion of commercial messages on public broadcasting, by law a "noncommercial" educational service. But on the contrary, PBS kids shows are surrounded by increasingly longer pitches for theme parks, shopping websites and fast food like McDonalds, Chuck-E-Cheese and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. The PBS children's show "Puzzle Place" has a joint marketing agreement with Toys-R-Us, and "Teletubbies" has such agreements with three companies, including Microsoft.
Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint calls this a "betrayal of parents' trust in what is supposed to be noncommercial educational broadcasting." Poussaint is particularly concerned with advertising connected to pre-school programs, like "Teletubbies," because research shows that children do not even understand the concept of advertising until they're six to eight years old.
George Gerbner, a leading scholar on children's television, laments: "For most of human history our children's stories were told by caring people with something to tell, not corporations with something to sell. It is a tragedy that a once safe public broadcasting environment has become polluted by these same commercial messages."
This is not just an ethical problem; it also is a pedagogical problem. In the transition from classroom student to couch potato, something significant happens to our youngsters. They cease to be a subject of learning and become, instead, a commodity -- an object to be sold by broadcasters to advertisers.
The strategy of most advertisers is to suppress critical thinking in favor of emotional appeals to frustrated needs or aspirations. Too much commercialism stunts intellectual and emotional growth.
Beyond the issue of commercialism, teachers could use better public-interest programming in their efforts to teach youth how to think critically and to educate them about social problems and issues.
Public broadcasters claim that funding problems compel them to compromise their important mission by appealing to corporate "underwriters." However they are not campaigning for an independent funding structure, something like a Public Broadcasting Trust that would free them of their commercial tether. I lead a group, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, that is alone in promoting such reform.
The need is there and so are the means.
Despite billions in profits, commercial broadcasters pay absolutely nothing for their use of the public's airwaves. A two percent fee for commercial broadcast license use or a small tax on license transfers or broadcast advertising would generate at least a billion dollars a year in program funds for public broadcasting. This would take public broadcasting off the federal dole and replace corporate underwriting. It would end the commercials masquerading as "underwriting announcements" in public broadcasting while financing truly independent news and public affairs coverage. It would secure the only refuge we and our children have to commercial broadcasting's hucksterism and, in turn and over time, help produce better citizens. It might even make the job of working teachers a lot easier.
Jerold M. Starr is executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, a grassroots campaign to improve public broadcasting. He is also professor of sociology at West Virginia University.