Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Screen-Agers ... and the Decline of the "Wasteland."

Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Screen-Agers ... and the Decline of the "Wasteland."

Article excerpt

Newton Minow himself tells the story that the two words from his 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters he originally thought would stand the test of time were not "vast wasteland," but rather, "public interest." (1)

He had intended his remarks that described the media environment of the 1960s not so much as a condemnation, but as a challenge, and a reminder to broadcasters that, as owners of the airwaves, viewers have rights, too. "Never have so few owed so much to so many," he said. "It is not enough to cater to the nation's whims--you must also serve the nation's needs.... For every hour that the people give you, you owe them something." (2)

But whether one sees the significance of the speech as a lament or as a challenge, the focus of the speech is overwhelmingly on the content of television--the programs, the production values, the storylines, the "product." This is because the Chairman's challenge issued from a set of assumptions common in the 1960s, not only about technology and the economics of broadcasting, but also about the power of visual images and about the receiver skills of the audience to make sense of those images. These in turn came from assumptions about education and about how children learn about their world and their role in it.

Against the use of television as an economic engine of a consumer society was posited the "better" use of television--"to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children." (3) The vision of educational television in the 1960s was as a temporary substitute for, or an extension of, the teacher whose function was to pass along the accumulated knowledge of (primarily western) civilization to the receptive ears, eyes, and brains of children, sitting quietly in order to take in the teacher's words of wisdom. Expanding this teaching approach with television, and later computers, not only proved ineffective in achieving educational goals but was unmasked in later decades by the exploding diversity of American culture as a narrow and elitist interpretation of human experience--whether past, present, or future.

But there were deeper assumptions, as well, about the role and function of communication in human society and the privilege of the scientific method as the preferred way of describing human experience. The common model of human communication at the time used the concepts of stimulus/response, cause/effect, and sender/receiver. The goal was to have the receiver "get" the message sent by the sender in an unimpeded path, without "noise" or degradation. The highest goal was "fidelity" of the message from sender to receiver and back again, with the original sender becoming the receiver and vice versa. (4)

Receivers were not perceived as participating in the process much at all. Although readers of print messages were assumed to be intellectually stimulated and, to some extent, radio "engaged" its listeners, television was thought to be passive because "nothing was left to the imagination." Furthermore, the prevalent hypodermic or "bullet" theory of communications assumed that message receivers, especially children, were rather passive "blank slates" over which message senders, such as television broadcasters, had the awesome power to influence "for good, or for ill." "Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership," observed Chairman Minow. (5)

LITERACY IN A MEDIA AGE

Forty years later, we are looking not just at a changed world of communications technology, but a changed world of education and a dramatically changed psychological understanding of how human beings, especially children, learn and grow in understanding about themselves and the world they inhabit. With children exposed to hundreds, even thousands, of images and messages each day through not only television but also videos, DVDs, music, video games, and, of course, the Internet, educators are becoming less concerned about the overt (or even latent) messages in a specific media experience than about the internal process a young person (even a toddler) goes through to make sense of the mediated world around him or her. …

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