Teachout: A Diet for a New Media America

Filed in: Civic Engagement

Filed by Zephyr Teachout


12.7.06 | The puzzle of media consumption in our children is a little like the problem of fast food consumption - there is vastly more “healthy” stuff available than ever before, but an increasing greater likelihood that the child will end up undernourished and obese.

I’d like to propose a few ideas as, well, food for thought. I tender them as notions, half-baked, to stimulate discussion about other serious reform. I take as given that we need media diversity - I also take as given that media diversity alone will not be enough.

First, I’d like to think about applying a 21st century version of fairness doctrine to all major entertainment outlets. Instead of requiring channels with broadcast rights to share publicly important information and dissenting views, we could require all online news/entertainment outlets with over 1 million visitors/month to carry news on issues of public importance. Basically, we’d be choosing, collectively, that we want a little spinach with our fries - because we know that in the long run, we’ll want persistent exposure to important information to allow us to be good citizens.

Second, I’d like to join those that are demanding that we stop talking about schools in purely efficient-worker-skills terms, and include massive civic education as a basic expectation. I think civic education must be taught from an early age through high school, and that we should be willing to pay for it. We can’t expect people to exercise power that they don’t know how to exercise - and I don’t mean just voting.

All students, 2-12th grade, should be able to answer these questions:

  • Where online can I find my candidates, and what they stand for?
  • Where can I find who contributes to them online?
  • Where can I find concerns about them online?
  • How can I contact them; who should I contact at their office; how should I talk to them?
  • How would I start a small group of people who wanted to oppose a candidate?
  • How do I start a petition, and how do I deliver it?
  • How do I find out information about a company (public/private, political ties)?
  • How & where do I find out about the laws in my local area, my state, and the country?
  • How do I find how those laws have been interpreted?
  • Who do I ask about those laws?
  • How do I test the reliability of political information?
  • Where can I find data about my country (basic economic facts)?
  • Where can I find legislation that is about to be passed?
  • Where can I find legislation that has been passed?
  • How can I object to legislation, before and after the fact?

Finally, students who use facebook, yahoo, and myspace should understand the corporate structure and the free speech limitations. These understandings, which were less important 100 years ago, are critical in a time when the public space is privately owned. They are no more difficult to learn than agricultural or home ec classes that were once taught - but, as with any civic education, will cost money and take enormous political will. I hope we have it.




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Shouldn’t several of those “Where” questions also be “How” questions?  I certainly don’t know the answer to some of the “where” questions but I certainly know enough about “how” to find the answer that I can, with relative ease, find the “where.”  The “how” also seems like a much more significant and longer-lasting lesson than the rote-memorization implied by knowing a particular resource or list of resources that may become unreliable, outdated, or simple unavailable.

Why isn’t “How can I become involved?” or “How would I run for office?” in this list?  And why is the question about supporting a candidate only phrased in the negative - why not a “How can I support a candidate, incumbent, or issue?” in this list?

(Off topic: I really wish there were a way to preview comments before submitting them…)

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Mark C


There is a great danger in ideas such as yours and even greater concern that you do not understand— that by your statements you are attacking free speech and civil liberties, breeding apathy and corrupting young, impressionable minds with the intricacies (and stupidity) of modern day politics.

First, we live in a society that is not based on Socialism, Communism or any other aspect of systems that are “supposed” to be for the collective good.

You have many rights, including the right to free speech, the pursuit of happiness and most importantly: the right to vote.  This means we are able to say, pretty much, what we want, make choices for ourselves to improve our lives and be able to voice our opinion when something is not to our liking.

If you have an idea, you can choose to share it, keep it, sell it, and give it away, etc, as long as it is within legal means and understandings.

Let us tackle the first issue you acknowledge: lots of healthy stuff, but continued obesity and undernourishment. 

In a democratic society, with civil liberties and rights, you are afforded the luxuries of choice and variety.  You may “choose” to eat well or “choose” to eat poorly.  However, you do not have the right to tell someone what to eat.  You do not have to have “spinach with your fries”, but you may want to choose so.  Fast food places can offer these or not, but should not be forced.  (Besides, that spinach is not going to save you the calories of the fries anyway!)  Market forces and public opinion will drive this matter forward (or not). 
Even though there are food pyramids, nutrition advice and doctor recommendations as well as a variety of foods that are “good for you”, it is up to you to make the choice.  There are also many places to “gather” your food.  The same with information on the internet: many sources of factual information and opinion: ideas expressed and many places to find them.   

This said, you cannot and should not force McDonald’s to carry healthy items nor should you force one media outlet to carry what you or other’s “think” is of public importance.  Do you not see that you are trying to socialize free speech?  What you think is of “public importance” may not be what I think is so.  You do have a right to disseminate your brand of opinion and knowledge, just like on this posting—it is your market place.

We already have the right to choose to have spinach with your fries: meaning, there are outlets where anyone can find and say what he/she wishes and therefore can counter anyone’s ideologies and opinions.  What you are saying is you want people to tailor their own free speech marketplace and beliefs to include what others are saying—because it is fair?  How fair do you think it would be, on any media outlet, if you must have an opinion from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, al-Qaeda, the pornography lobby, etc?  I use these as they are deplorable to most decent human beings, but they have a right to free speech and therefore, should merit time in your “media” outlet, correct?

As biased and dangerous as these groups are, they have a right to free speech, but they don’t have the right to have it on every site/media source available—it’s your site.  They can say what they need to say on their own dime and in their own place and let them be vetted that way.  You are proposing more media control than already in existence. 

What happened to teaching vigilance, critical thinking, research, attention to detail and other constructive reasoning abilities?  As you have done, we can counter with our own outlet but, just because it does not have the pull of a “major” news outlet, we should not force others to listen. 

I found your article through a thirst for what else is out there.  Why only think of a way to “force” the issue instead of lending your voice to the openness of the internet and the ability to find issues of public interest—must everything be spoon-fed to us? 

What happened to get the word out and go do something?  What happened to thinking of ways to do it that do not force the opinions of others? 

The problem, that you clearly show, but do not realize, is that we are lazy and expectant of information, rather than persistent and tenacious enough to go look for it.  You do not have the right to know everything: you have a duty to become informed and you have the privilege to seek the truth.

Also, remember that democracy and freedom are not easy and are ideals to be fought for everyday.  These freedoms should not be taken for granted nor handed over. 
What you do not express and do not pose for discussion is this:  the internet is an awesome resource that provides access to most everyone.  It is not based on government owned broadcast rights that only a select few can afford.  Anyone can be taught to create his or her own website, blog, Wiki page, etc.  They can voice their opinion, freely and at little cost.  These opinions can be pulled into a collective site to counter the “mainstream” media outlets.  This country was built on going after your dreams, not having them handed to you.

Why can we not teach that there is life and learning beyond what CNN, Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, MTV, etc. tell you?  Why are we not teaching these skills to young, inquisitive minds?  Why must we teach them that the only way to get information is from one source, pre-packaged with few viewpoints?  Can we not teach the skills to view the “other” vast sources of information?  Whether you realize it or not, your proposing to narrow the access to free speech and public information rather than promoting everyone to seek the truth and disseminate it themselves.

Teach skills to find the “healthy stuff”—it is not that hard.  Getting your “spinach” is only a www away.  Stop creating apathy and start creating an invigorated, inquisitive youth that will question the mainstream, find it lacking and strive to seek and develop other sources of information.
Second, on the topic of civic education, I mostly agree with you.  I think your concept of creating learned voters and your bullet-points are excellent.  However, I do not agree with teaching them to all grades at the same time. 

Politics causes a lot of emotion in adults, who are supposed to be levelheaded.  Introducing certain concepts to the very young and teaching the more intricate details of the political process will lead to early developments of animosity, hatred and disillusionment for the process—not free thought.  I do not have a plan of exactly when and where, but civic education would be better served in a staged environment. 

Starting with the basics in the lower-level such as how the government works, the Bill of Rights, how bills are passed, what it takes to run for office, the Electoral College, etc.—the basic building blocks of a democratic system and our Republic. 

Then, as the mind develops knowledge of the process, slowly introduce the “behind the scenes” happenings.  Teach them to be informed and active voters as they get closer to that age and can comprehend the process—high school. 

There is no need to corrupt the young and developing mind with the advanced issues of politics, as they should be focused on the fundamentals: history, science, math, reading, social studies.  Teach the basics and then teach how they work and what they mean so they can have a full understanding. 

What good is done to teach a 3rd-grader how politics works when he/she is still trying to comprehend how to divide, multiply and subtract?  Teach critical thinking skills in context and create active civic participators when their minds are ready to grasp the concepts.


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