TALKING PICTURES Conference #2 Who is responsible for the media's impact on society?
Hugh Downs:
It would be impossible in a short paragraph to describe exactly what media literacy is. But I would like to do a short, simplistic version of it and more elaborate forms will evolve as we get the panel discussion going. To be media literate is to know whether messages coming to you through various media are primarily motivated by a desire to entertain you, or to inform you or to persuade you. Everything you see or read has to do with one of those things and often there's a mixture of them. But a commercial for example is basically propaganda. It's to persuade you to try a new product or service or to switch from a product that you've been using to the one that they want you to use. A commercial may involve some information and may entertain at times, but it's main motivation is to persuade you. And of course news and special events things are to inform you and then there is the diversionary fare, variety shows and dramas and comedies and so forth, which is to entertain.

It's surprising how few people in our country, particularly young people are aware of those differences or those motivations. And that's what the need is, to become media literate is to understand that. The theme of this panel and what we are going to get into is, who is responsible for the media's impact on society. Now this is a really heavy question, but I think if we don't come up with The answer, we'll have a lot of very interesting insights into it with this panel of experts. So, what I would like to do is introduce the panelists and after I've introduced each of them so you know who they are, ask each of them to make a very short opening statement that's addressed to that question, Who is Responsible? And then we'll have questions and we certainly welcome questions from you. If you address your questions to a specific panelist, fine, or if you want to throw one out generally, that's alright too.

To start, at the farthest away from me is Bob DiNozzi who is Executive Director of the Media Education Foundation. They are producers of such acclaimed films as Dream Worlds, The Killing Screens, and Pack of Lies. As a producer of several films, Bob has extensive experience in alternative distribution strategies for independent film makers.

Next to Bob is Shirley Gazsi, she's Director of Communications and Publications at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University. The Center is the nations first institute for the advanced study of mass communications and technology and technological change and Shirley has been enormously helpful in making this session a reality working with Downs Media Education Center and Dan. We are really very grateful to her for that.

Next to her, Arthur Kanaegis, who is a producer, screen writer and President of the Future Wave, Incorporated. Founded in 1986, Future Wave is working to reverse the culture of violence by creating innovative projects which utilize the power of the entertainment industry to educate, model and envision a better way. He is a film producer, lecturer, author and a publicist. He produced the award winning War Without Winners with Paul Newman. He and I were talking earlier about the need, we must surely be on the brink of a whole raft of literature and films in which heroism is depicted as something more than just macho and destruction.

Next, Dr. Robert Kubey, who is the Associate Professor of Communications at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He has been academically involved in media literacy at the University of Pennsylvania, the program in social ecology at the University of California at Irvine, the Gerontological Society of America, he and I share that interest. And the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture. It is always a pleasure to be with him in a panel situation.

Ranny Levy, next to him, is President of the Coalition for Quality Children's Video. The Coalition works to ensure that quality children's programming gets into the hands of those for whom it was intended. They have developed a schedule and a system by which panels of students and teachers and librarians and educators grade commercial video and can have it labeled for consumers.

And finally, next to me, Bob McCannon who is an educator, Director of New Mexico Media Literacy Project, an organization that through workshops and seminars, teaches parents, educators and students about the importance of understanding and interpreting mass media.

With that, I would like to ask each of the panelists, starting with Bob DiNozzi just to make an opening statement about who is responsible for the impact that media has on our culture.

Bob DiNozzi:
I think George Gerbner perhaps put it best, he said that for the first time in human history most of the stories that are told about the world and about living, are told not by parents, schools and teachers, not by people who have something to tell, but by people who have something to sell. And for the first time in human history, most of the stories and messages which surround us come with commercial intent or the intent to persuade.

I think that that has manifested itself in terms that we all have instinctual issues with mainstream media whether they be violence or some other representational issues and the mainstream debate or the debate as we understand it, right now tends to be framed as one of censorship versus free speech when it comes to what to do about the media. And I think that is a false dichotomy, censorship versus free speech. What I would say in terms of responsibility for media impact is that we should stop looking to the things that we don't like in terms of censoring them or advocating that producers stop producing them, but rather that we look at ways of expanding what's available--opening up the channels of communication to alternative voices.

Hugh Downs:
Very good Bob, Shirley.
Shirley Gazsi:
Well I guess I think that the primary responsibility lies in a free system especially with the audience and given what's happening around the world, with new media systems opening up with market driven economies, this is I think a movement that has in its nascent stages some really ominous considerations for the future. If you notice around the world, new media systems opening up are presenting major cultural shifts in people's relationship to each other and to the society. In this system, as much as we may not see a lot or hear a lot or read a lot that we do like, the fact is this country continues to be fairly stable, we have severe social problems of course, but media literacy for us can be a real tool to be much more embracing in the way this country relates individually to each other and also to the system of the media. Now that doesn't mean that I don't think that other professionals, media professionals, don't bear some responsibility. I'm just saying that in the context of a free system, people can put out there pretty much what they want within social very limited restraints. But, I think journalists have some responsibility.

I was at an American Society of Newspaper Editors meeting in Dallas prior to coming here. And I heard one newspaper editor from a major paper say, "Our audiences don't want to hear about international news. They don't even want to hear national news. They want to hear local news." Now this is a major paper. I've heard television producers say, regarding some of the talk shows that you hear or see in the afternoons are only giving the audience what they want. These people that are on television come on here voluntarily, this is what the audience want, we may not like it but it makes money.

So, I think these are very real considerations that the people who also produce the media, there should be some threshold whether that's industry driven or whether that's just personally driven, it is something to consider. I will close with just an example of how this does work on a limited basis.

I was involved in a report for the New York Board of Regents on people with disabilities and their portrayal in the media. There are a number of organizations in New York and in Hollywood dealing with the television and film industry trying to encourage them to portray people with disabilities in a much more positive way. Less the hero despite a disabling condition and less the pathetic person with a disabling condition. That works, but as I'm sure we'll talk about later, we still are a commercially driven media system and that has to be considered.

And, by the way, most people, given the new technologies even though they hate advertising on television and in other forms of media will say in order to subsidize the new technologies, if it means they don't have to pay as much to enter Internet online-- it's a devil's pact, they'll take the advertising. So, that may be something to get into later.

Hugh Downs:
Okay, thank you Shirley. Arthur Kanaegis.
Arthur Kanaegis:
Yes, thank you Hugh. You mentioned at the beginning that a commercial is to persuade to get a person to switch to a product. And if you can imagine an ad man's dream, if you had a product that was advertised not just in the thirty seconds at the end of the program or the beginning, but through the entire program with great emotion and terrific technical values and this was advertised eight times an hour, day in and day out the whole time kids are growing up from little infants 'til the time as they go through school. You would imagine that that product would sell pretty darn well and that product is that violence works.The product of selling guns as a way of solving problems--and we almost never see, very rarely see, the hero work on prevention programs that prevents the violence from happening and educate kids and turn around gang violence before it happens. We rarely see the hero engage in nonviolent conflict resolution.

Is it any wonder that in our society, we now have a society where as a nation where currently you have congress saying we'll cut out prevention programs things like that and just throw people in prison and you have them saying, well leave it to the states and here in New Mexico, our governor has just vetoed every program of gang intervention, education starting with youth and almost everyone instead is focusing on building more prisons--punishing people.

Well this is what we've been taught day in and day out, over and over again, that the good guys catch the bad guys, throw them in jail or kill 'em and this is the way our society begins to react. Now we have, I was talking to--as far as who is responsible--one of my staff people, who was talking to the head of the entertainment division of one of the networks, shortly, I was out in LA at a conference in August where all the networks and all the major studios got together to talk about the TV violence issue under pressure from congress.

In one of the private discussions, one of the, this head of the entertainment division said, "This is a war. This is congress trying to take our first amendment freedoms." And I contacted him back and I said wait a minute, you've got this all wrong. This isn't congress trying to take away your first amendment freedoms, this is congress doing your market research for you. They're telling you that there is a terrific demand out there, 83 percent of the public are demanding less violence in television. And those of you that catch it and get it and begin to create product that will meet this mass audience are going to do very well financially.

So, I think that the responsibility does lie in all of us. I think we have been expressing our feelings through polls, through congress and so on, and it's time for the media industry to respond. And that's what our organization is working on.

Future Wave, Wave stands for Working For Alternatives to Violence through Entertainment, and we're working both at a grassroots level to educate young people about alternatives to violence, and through our Bullyproof Shields play. There's a picture up here of the bullyproof shield that Shawna Bear, a Native American Medicine Woman in Santa Fe made, and we have a whole play that's been very powerful in schools that empowers kids with the tools to handle conflict more effectively than violence. Each of the spirits of the shield teaches the kids one of these steps. We also are working on a mass media level with producer Robert Watts who produced Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and Alive, on two feature films which will indeed create new kinds of heros and heroines who use techniques more advanced than violence. Thank you.

Hugh Downs:
Bob Kubey:
Okay, thank you. In the ideal, everyone would be responsible and everyone would have equal opportunity to be responsible and everyone would take that responsibility. But, we don't live in an ideal world. And so, I argue strenuously that journalists in particular and producers in the media generally, and by producers I mean everyone who works in those media, but especially the people who make the decisions, have a higher calling and a higher responsibility.

I have journalism students who take my classes and they'll say, "Yeah, but we can't do this story the way you would say it ought to be done because we'll lose viewership or people will turn off, or we can't talk about, report on this issue in the detail that you're suggesting, so we have to make it simple and dumb it down and so on." And I say no. I say that you have a higher responsibility and a higher calling as a journalist if you still hold to any kinds of journalistic standards.

And to go on with this because it came up yesterday as well, again, the idealist position would be that because we're a democracy that everyone should have equal input into these matters and so on. But I also would argue, and this is, I suppose an elitist position to some degree. I don't believe that the public is well informed enough, nor does the public know, entirely what it needs or what it--because it's misinformed consistently. I'll give you a few examples.

I believe that the public in this culture in particular has been conditioned through years and years of television entertainment in particular, to expect entertainment values in most everything and that then dictates media producers processes. But I don't believe they should pander to the lowest common denominator. I mean it doesn't mean that we should throw Christians to the lions again just because it would get an audience. I think we have to have some limits.

So, for example, I don't want to go too much further, but if you were to ask most Americans whether they pay exorbitantly high taxes relative to the rest of the world, I almost guarantee you that the vast majority--in fact there is data to support this-- would tell you that we pay very high taxes. In fact, we pay lower taxes overall than other western industrialized country. If you ask most Americans whether Clinton raised their taxes or not and if they were middle class and most Americans are middle class, they would say yes, Clinton raised my taxes. They would be wrong, he didn't raise their taxes. If you asked people what the most important thing to cut in the federal budget would be, an awful lot of people would probably tell you welfare because there's been such a brew ha ha around that, and of course they'd be wrong again that that would really matter terribly in terms of budgetary outlay. Welfare is something like 24 billion and Medicaid and so on is like, I don't know, 180 billion offhand, something like this.

With regard to something specifically like the reform of our own media system, look at PBS funding where the average per capita expenditure in this country is $1.09. In other words, we spend about 260 million a year on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A dollar nine, versus in England it's $36. Now most people don't know that. So, if Newt Gingrich or others tell you, you know you're wasting money on PBS, I mean, a lot of Americans don't know the difference between a million and a billion, I have to tell you quite frankly. A third of my undergraduate, upper division students I tested last year, just to check it out, a third of them didn't really know what a billion was.

So the public is badly informed, the public bears a lot of responsibility for being ignorant in a lot of ways, but to some degree they have to be reliant upon the media system that they have. And that media system unfortunately, is overly dependent on commercial underpinning in this culture. It's no surprise that we had this huge savings and loan scandal a few years ago and part of the reason that it went way out of hand was because the televised media couldn't deal with a complex issue that had a lot of talking heads. I mean, it wasn't sexy.

But if you ask most Americans what Kato Kalin had for dinner before someone bumped into his wall, they could tell you that, but they can't tell you how many people there are on the supreme court or who Justice Renquist was, is. They know who Judge Whoppner is, they know who Judge Ito is, they do. So, to have the notion that we're--in a democracy the ideal would be that people are reasonably well informed and the making the decisions about who's going to lead them and then who's going to make policy on media policy, nutrition policy and so on. And I think increasingly we're in a culture where the public is--there's no evidence, in fact there's opposite evidence to suggest that people are better informed now than they were twenty years ago. And so, this vaunted media system we have could be wonderful, but I'm not arguing for socialism, I'm arguing for a little bit more regulation and a lot more public funding for media.

Hugh Downs:
Ranny Levy
Ranny Levy:
Thank you Hugh. I think it's important for us to remember that media is one of the three key influentials on children. Right along with parents and teachers. Our organization if primarily concerned about what kind of media that children have access to. And in looking at the greater scope which you are doing at this conference of course, children are just one percent of the complete media audience. However, we have forty-two million children in this country that are not always given the best opportunity for the best type of media exposure possible. And I think in answer to the question about who determines what kind of media that children see, that we have to look at it again as a complex adaptive system, just as Bob was saying that there is no one entity that's responsible for what children are seeing.

The parents of course are the key gate keepers for children, and we always encourage parents that if you see a program on television or you put a video cassette in your VCR, that you don't like, use the on and off button. That's what it's there for. You are capable of controlling what your children are watching. But, the other key components of this are certainly the regulators.

It's interesting, I was just at a conference in Australia, the World Summit on Television and Children, last month. This conference was sponsored by the Australian Children's Television Foundation. And I was very encouraged to hear the marvelous progress that the Australian government has been able to make in terms of regulation for children's programming that a certain amount of children's program is required to be aired every day, every week, every month and, along with that that close to 50 percent of that programming must be Australian produced.

There's a big objection worldwide to the influence of American programming all over the world. And as a young Australian boy said at that conference, he said, "I think it's very interesting that I know more about the history of the American Indian than I do of the Aboriginal from this country."

But in spite of all of the wonderful progress that the Australian government has made, I was surprised to sit down one day for lunch, with a gentleman who is from the Australian finance corporation that finances most of these independent productions. In expressing my admiration for the wonderful work that his agency has done, he looked at me and he said, "Don't be fooled, these regulations are now under attack, there's nothing that says that they will stay in place, that they're going to continue." And as a matter of fact, the gentleman who had just spoken at the evening before, who had hosted one of the dinner events, who was from one of the major channels in Australia had said to him a year before, "You know if it wasn't for all of these regulations, I would take all of these children's programs off the air. They don't pay. I can't sell enough advertising to make this be a viable entity for my organization."

No that's different in the U.S., children's programming does not have a difficult time finding sponsors here. But this is a different country, this is their experience. So, the whole regulatory process is one that's tenuous at best. Right now in this country, the Children's Television Act is under attack. The whole structure for the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is under attack.

I encourage people, regular, ordinary people sitting in this room today, whatever your backgrounds are to become advocates for quality programming whether it's children's programming or adult programming, because the end result is if you're not actively involved in voicing your opinion about what you want to see and what you want made available to you, it won't necessarily be there. We've learned that we can't make these assumptions so it's really important for us to take an active role.

I'm proud to represent the coalition for quality children's video here, which is such an effort. It's a joint effort between the industry and parent advocacy organizations. One of the projects of this group is called Kids First. I don't know how well you can see this, but I did leave some literature out in the lobby. This is an effort that evaluates and endorses children's programming. It's systematically reviewed by a group of professional adults and children. This is programming that is geared for the entertainment market. This is a sort of grassroots organization that evolved out of people who were concerned about making quality programming available and this little sign that you see here is the result of a project that's starting this week with the Suncoast Motion Picture Company to have Kids First programs designated in their stores.

So, there are a number of things that you can do as an advocate for quality programming and I encourage you to get involved, participate where ever you find an opening because you really are the ones that make a difference in the end. In closing I'd like to just remind you of a comment from an Aboriginal woman in Australia at this conference who I thought was probably the most stunning speaker there. She said, "You know, in the past our forefathers had visions. Today, we have televisions."

Hugh Downs:
Thank you Ranny, Bob.
Bob McCannon:
Hi, I'm Bob McCannon. I'm the Director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project and I'd like to thank all of these distinguished people for being here in our state. Hugh, I'd like to thank you for all the work that you have done around New Mexico appearing again and again to promote media literacy in this state. Deirdre Downs, I'd like to thank you for all you've done.
Hugh Downs:
Bob, I'm finding we don't have to work these quite as close as we thought, because they're going to pop.
Bob McCannon:
I'd like to remind all of you about the grandmother that went into McDonalds and bought a cup of coffee. Do you remember? She spilled some coffee? She won an award of 5.6 million dollars. It became national news. Every comedian in America referred to it again and again. Letterman still is talking about the grandma who got 5.6 million for spilling coffee. Newt Gingrich has talked about it.

How many of you know that McDonalds has been sued 900 times for people who have been seriously burned with their coffee, which is 40 degrees higher than any other coffee in the fast food industry; they've lost 600 lawsuits, and that the jury in that case gave her $160,000 for her damages? She had extensive plastic surgery on her genital region and they gave her the rest of the money to punish McDonalds for ignoring the past 600 cases which they had ignored and refused to turn down their coffee.

Now, whether you think that's right or wrong, the answer is I've probably given most of you a little bit of new detail. Basically what we are trying to do with kids, parents, business people, and media people, is trying to emphasis the importance of evaluating the source of your media. Evaluating the information that you're taking in.

The Wall Street Journal just did a wonderful survey of businessmen in which 77 percent of them said that America was paying out too much in foreign aid. And then they asked them, "What do you think would be about the right amount of money for America to spend on foreign aid?" The median response was 17 billion. Guess what we spend on foreign aid? Less than 3 billion. Interesting survey, okay?

What we're trying to do in media literacy is--I think Hugh put it beautifully--to let people know when they are being persuaded, when they're being entertained, what the consequences and what the advantages of those things are. None of us in the New Mexico Media Literacy Project are against media.

I saw Tombstone four times and absolutely loved it. When I was a kid I loved Have Gun Will Travel. But when I saw Tombstone for the fourth time, I realized that Val Kilmer, who I love in that movie playing Doc Holiday, saving his buddy Wyatt Earp. I realized that he is a thoroughly despicable individual who has a thoroughly despicable relationship with his significant other and he's engaged in a thoroughly despicable profession and he's addicted to drugs and still, I can enjoy that movie.

The second part of that is, okay, if you're going to enjoy media you have to be able to understand it. And that's what we're promoting. In New Mexico we are trying to work with all aspects of society. We're trying to work with young mothers, prenatally. We're trying to work with parents postnatally, right after their children are born. We're trying to work with PTAs, we're trying to work with business people. We're trying to work with the media and we've made some remarkable progress with that. Thanks to DD Downs primarily, the city of Las Cruces has had a Media Literacy Day. They have gotten the city council, the mayor, the local TV stations, the local radio stations, everyone involved in a giant Media Literacy Celebration. We want to do that next year in Taos. We have begun, the day before yesterday by giving talks to Taos teachers and many of Taos' students. Your Superintendent of Education here, Juan Aragon has been absolutely visionary. Juan Aragon is sitting right over here. He has been visionary and he's been brave in terms of taking the bull by the horns in this initiative.

We would love to see next year a Media Literacy Day in Taos. We formed a steering committee. We've got some teachers, we've got some media people who are interested in being on that steering committee. If any of you are interested in being on that steering committee so that we could have a Media Literacy Day next year, hopefully with the governor and with the mayor and everyone else involved, please give your names to--this Erica Hizel. She is leaning against the wall over here. She is our coordinator of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project.

Basically, what we are trying to do is we see too often when start criticizing media and people start talking about their favorite enemies, we see America circling the wagons in the wagon train and everybody taking their guns and shooting in. And what we would like to do is see everybody cooperate in this enterprise and basically we all have the responsibility.