What's wrong with being media-literate? No subject comes in for as much abuse these days as the academic study of media and mass culture, whether it's John Major condemning the teaching of "soap opera" or Jeremy Paxman and Polly Toynbee sneering at the pretensions of "Brookside scholars".
The idea that anyone should teach (or be taught) about how the media functions - both as cultural meaning and commercial enterprise - seems to be beyond the pale. Defenders of the discipline take a vocational line; they point to the subjects' success in making graduates employable, particularly in the cultural industries.
But why is it impermissible for an academic department to do detailed research into the effects and meanings of different media on different audiences - but permissible for Murdoch or Montgomery or Elstein to do exactly the same under the title of "market research"? There is as much of the dreaded "gender studies" and "semiotics" in a big-business study of focus-group responses as there is in the most underfunded media studies department. It's just that the first aims to identify its niche market for commercial ends, while the second gamely equips its students to unsettle those marketed meanings for ends that go beyond the commercial.
Perhaps that is what really scares politicians and mandarins about media literacy: its implicit threat to authority. How do you do politics when every appearance the politician makes can be deconstructed into its cliches? How do you sell when every strategy you deploy can be taken apart by a media-literate population?
It is interesting that most of the abuse comes from the quill-pen end of the cultural spectrum. I think it is rooted in a very ancient, neo- Protestant response: iconophobia - the fear of the image as a source of seduction and confusion.
How easy life would be, if everyone returned to inky letters on wood- pulp as their main source of information! But that simply isn't going to happen. For every moan about how soaps and blockbusters are dazzling our eyes and dulling our senses, there are new media, arrived and imminent - CD-Roms, computer simulation, digital broadcasting, Internet shows of all kinds - that combine image, text and sound in undeniably communicative ways. Perhaps they should listen to even higher mandarins than themselves - such as George Steiner, who has recently been exulting over the possibilities for a future literacy brought about by multi-media and cyberspace.
The attack on media literacy is a fearful response to that kind of future - perhaps also rooted in a resentment of younger generations who will be comfortable in the new technoculture. Appalling that this shift from word to image is being made in the first place; damned disgusting that these brats are being educated to make the most of it!
The lack of historical perspective is breathtaking. Does not the very existence of the print media depend upon an environment of literacy beginning with the public sphere of the 18th century, and expanding with mass literacy in the 19th and 20th? And who can deny that the rise in textual literacy raised the standards of print media, in all kinds of journalism, as cause followed effect?
It seems reasonable to presume that a rise in audio-visual and digital literacy among the public spheres of the 21st century would also raise the standards of their new media. Informational capitalism, no matter how huge its barons, is nothing if not consumer-sensitive. If those consumers happen to be media-literate citizens, equipped to deal with their society of the spectacle through a comprehensive media education, they are more likely to demand the highest standards from the service providers and programmers of the future.
And what is wrong in doing hard statistical analyses of media empires? Or is the prospect of a generation being educated to "follow the money" even more threatening than one that reads the signs?
Politicians and commentators, wringing their hands over the demise of our golden age of broadcasting and journalism, have the remedy before them: media education should be a part of any progressive government's educational policy. But if they continue to be fixated on literacy as black marks on a page, ignoring the mouse, joystick and channel-changer, they will miss out on one of the most emancipatory prospects of the next century: a media-literate, and therefore truly effective, citizenry. Or is that something they fear too?
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