Kamerer, David, Communication Research Trends
Senator William Proxmire, D-Wisconsin, famously made fun of government waste with his "Golden Fleece" awards, which were "given to the biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste." In December 1978, he selected the United States office of Education:
For spending $219,592 to develop a "curriculum package" to teach college students how to watch television. The product of the contract, according to its recipient, will enable college students to "...distinguish between television's fact and fiction, recognize Its various viewpoints, and evaluate its messages."
Under its Special Projects Act, the Office of Education--which has in fact developed some outstanding programs, like Sesame Street and the Electric Company--has let four contracts totaling $823,651 to develop "critical television viewing skills" at the elementary, middle, secondary, and post-secondary school levels. Another $800,000 to train teachers and distribute the materials developed and tested in phase one is contemplated. In view of the amount of violence on television or the attempt of advertisers to aim commercials at children, there may be some justification for the elementary, middle, or secondary proposals. But the spending of $219,000 for the college program gets such low ratings it should be cancelled. (Wisconsin State Historical Society, 2013)
Proxmire's award had the effect of marginalizing the field of media literacy education in the public's mind. While media literacy and education has deep roots, the field grew substantially in the 1960s, bringing together disparate elements including film theory, access to new tools such as videotape, and new ideas from scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, largely played out in classrooms from primary school to college.
Proxmire's news release continued:
The grant raises a whole series of issues. Should the government be involved in developing curricula to teach students how to watch the mass media? If needed, why shouldn't it be done by individual university faculties to fit their own specific needs? Why shouldn't the materials be developed and produced by one of the many private textbook publishing houses? Is it clear that college students are, in fact, watching too much television or that they are unable to criticize it intelligently? Should the federal government be offering inducements for the proliferation of new courses to substitute for the limited time students have for fundamental subjects? In my view, in this period of inflation and budget stringency the money should not be spent at all.
This criticism has been revisited many times by media literacy advocates. If media literacy education is added to a curriculum, then what should be removed? What ages are appropriate for this kind of instruction? And where is the natural home of media literacy education? English classes have proven popular, in part due to the affinity of film and television for fictional narratives. And media literacy education has been found in media production classes, "American studies," and other social science classes. But others have advocated that media literacy education should be taught across the curriculum.
When Proxmire gave his Golden Fleece award, media literacy education was growing for a reason. Media had become pervasive in society, and media use was on the rise. Consider how television had grown by the end of the 1970s: the average screen size had increased to 21 inches; cable television was in 16 million homes; the remote control empowered viewers; half of all homes had multiple televisions; and the television became a connecting point for video games and video cassette recorders (Carey, 2002). According to Nielsen, the average household had a set on for 6 hours and 36 minutes a day in 1980 (TVB, 2013).
Examined from another perspective, America had just experienced the Viet Nam war, the first "living room war" played out on television. …