The news from media literacy land this week reveals the complicated political and economic context that has always been part of its legacy. Two key tensions that are an inherent part of capitalism have manifested themselves in the media literacy community this week, making transparent how both the rich-get-richer effect and the anti-corporatist approach to media literacy work to benefit the players at the margins and marginalize the folks in the middle.
This week, Apple announced its support for a new media literacy initiative, but the March 19 press release actually contained surprisingly little information about it. What are the strategic objectives of the initiative? What was the specific nature of Apple’s support? Was this new initiative funded with $1 million? $100 million? Or $100,000? Under the headline, “Apple Teams up with Media Literacy Programs in the U.S. and Europe,” we learn that three organizations will receive support from Apple to “empower young people with the critical thinking skills necessary for today’s digital age.”
Who were the winners? Naturally, success breeds success. The three lucky beneficiaries include Jim Steyer’s Common Sense Media, Alan Miller’s News Literacy Project, and Andrea Ceccherini, founder and CEO of Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. Each of the three men who lead these organizations has cultivated meaningful relationships with the men who lead the technology and media industry, leaders like Tim Cook of Apple, editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the CEO of Time Warner, Jeff Bewkes, Google’s Eric Schmidt, James and Lachlan Murdoch of 21st Century Fox, and others.
At Common Sense Media, they cultivate businesses and donors from the so-called Stanford Mafia and through support from their social networks of regional councils in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. Common Sense Media reported $22 million in 2016-2017 from grants, contributions and fees for services. At the News Literacy Project, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has provided $1 million with Bloomberg and and Dow Jones Foundation providing smaller amounts of funding. In 2014, the Council on Philanthropy identified the annual budget of the News Literacy Project as between $1 – 3 million. Andrea Ceccherini’s International Advisory Board includes leaders of the international banking community, including banks in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands, and his American advisors include the New York Times’ Dean Baquet, Matt Murray, director of the Wall Street Journal, Norman Pearlstine of the Los Angeles Times, and Apple’s Tim Cook.
Anti-corporatist wars. Ironically, on the same day as the Apple press release, academic critics released a clickbait-titled blog post titled, “Has Media Literacy Been Hijacked?” As they insist on putting the phrase “critical” in front of the “media literacy” in order to show their central focus on attacking the political economy of media, they see “mainstream” media literacy education as a form of neocolonialism and believe that tech companies are “vying for control over the American conception of media literacy.” Nolan Higdon and Ben Boyington want none of it. They attacked NAMLE, the national membership organization of the field, for attending a gathering of the anti-corporatist media literacy clan in Georgia last month, claiming that “its actions empower the tech-industry and surveillance state.”
Funding from media and technology companies has always been a source of controversy within the media literacy community as far back as the early 1990s, when it was one of the “seven great debates” in our field. In a recent blog post, David Buckingham notes that the potential value of industry-funded work in media literacy depends on the ways in which teachers are engaged as partners. In analyzing the recent spate of news literacy programs, he suggests that corporate-funded media literacy initiatives be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, through questions like “How equal is the partnership?” and “How good are the materials, support and training?” He writes, “If education is just a fig-leaf for corporate public relations, then in my view it’s definitely worth avoiding.”
In the middle of the debate, media literacy educators recognize both the value of corporate funding for media literacy and its potential downsides. For example, in recent Twitter dialogue, Andrea DeGette believes that media companies have a social responsibility to contribute to programs that advance media literacy competencies, explaining that they should be forced to bring a portion of their budget to the cause. Rachel Guldin notes that because media companies profit from uncritical consumption of media, “there will be inherent bias in their content. But teachers can take these materials, rework them to expose ideologies and bias, and develop good materials from them.” Above all, media literacy educators recognize the need to examine curriculum materials carefully, recognizing that all curriculum has a point of view.
Teachers will inevitably make different judgments regarding the quality of media literacy resources, whether they are created by teachers or academics, or funded by government, corporations, philanthropies or media companies. In a country with 327 million people, different flavors of media literacy are needed. For example, to some, Google’s “Be Internet Awesome” curriculum is a valuable resource for digital learning but others see the materials as no more than thinly-disguised advertising, as reported by Natasha Singer and Sapna Maheshwari of the New York Times.
Diverse approaches to media literacy education are one of the strengths of the “American model” of media literacy. Just as a national curriculum is probably unconstitional because there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for a large federal role in education, a diverse country simply cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach to media literacy education. Perhaps it’s time to consider whether federal funding of media literacy could help strengthen and protect the independence of the field. But in any case, it will be important to respect and even celebrate the many diverse perspectives about how media literacy is best taught and learned. For this reason, national membership organizations like NAMLE, the National Association for Media Literacy Education, play a vital role.
The poor-get-poorer paradox. It’s a paradox that the national membership organization has not received funding simply because they represent educators with diverse, competing and sometimes contradictory perspectives. Grass-roots organizing groups for media literacy have certainly not benefitted from philanthropic or corporate funding. Recently, The LAMP has struggled to find the funding it needs to offer media literacy programs for youth in New York City. And contrary to the perceptions of anti-corporatist critics, both news organizations and platform companies have failed to provide meaningful funding for NAMLE. When asked about the Apple initiative recently, NAMLE Executive Director Michelle Ciulla Lipkin knew nothing about it. Her partners at the News Literacy Project and Common Sense Media, who are organizational members of NAMLE, simply didn’t feel the need to keep her in the loop.
How have the platform companies invested in strengthening the national community of media literacy educators? Google gave $1,000 to NAMLE and Facebook gave $2,500. Apple gave nothing. And Common Sense Media and News Literacy Project paid the $350 membership fee. It’s the least they could do, literally.
Through NAMLE, Lipkin and the members of her board work tirelessly to increase the visibility of media literacy education in the United States. Member organizations pay NAMLE $350 per year to join. Since NAMLE membership is free to individuals, support from philanthropies is essential to the health of the organization. At the upcoming NAMLE national conference in Washington, DC, the News Literacy Project and Common Sense Media will both share their ideas within a field that, through their prowess in fundraising, they have come to dominate. But fortunately, they will engage with scholars and practitioners who constitute a robust national and international community whose ideological, political, racial and cultural diversity is a source of great strength to the future of the field.