BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you media literate? Can you tell when and how you are manipulated by unseen media forces to want things, to tune in and to pay attention? You soon will if the newly formed Alliance for a Media Literate America has its way. It hopes to wise up consumers to the kind of tactics that can make one suddenly yearn for Frosted O goodness and marshmallow surprises. (That is, if you didn't yearn for them already.) But now some media literacy advocates are worried that corporate support will compromise the movement just as it's getting off the ground. On the Media's Paul Ingles reports. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
YOUNG MAN: ...and they're trying to interweave them to make it look like the, the actor-pilot is the real pilot....
PAUL INGLES: In a darkened hotel ballroom in Austin, Texas, about 400 educators and professionals watch a big-screen video that features people like themselves describing how important it is to help students critically analyze and create media messages.
WOMAN: The number one principle of media education is that media are not windows on the world. Media are not mirrors of society, but carefully manufactured products.
WOMAN: We got Abby. She's looking through her Good Housekeeping. She's....
PAUL INGLES: The video shows teachers helping elementary to high school students deconstruct advertising to understand persuasion and marketing techniques.
WOMAN: So is it real or is it unrealistic? Convince me. Tell me what you think.
PAUL INGLES: Students are also seen analyzing their own favorite films, TV and music in search of value messages; and they're making their own media messages to learn how message-makers choose what to put in and what to leave out. All this activity falls under the broad discipline known as media literacy, a growing field that's led to this night when a national membership organization called the Alliance for a Media Literate America, or AMLA, is formally born. [APPLAUSE UNDER] Education consultant Faith Rogow is its president.
FAITH ROGOW: I have a vision of a world where every school teaches analysis and production in a fully-integrated way in every curriculum area. That's going to happen. [APPLAUSE]
PAUL INGLES: To make it happen, the AMLA will help practitioners share techniques and resources and advocate for the cause. It's also considering a national awareness campaign featuring celebrities. Much like the "Got Milk?" campaign, the ads' aim would be to get the words media literacy on the lips of all americans, most of whom would likely have a hard time defining it today. Naturally all of this will cost a lot of money. The Austin conference alone costs around 85,000 dollars, most of it paid by media companies - among them, AOL Time Warner Foundation which pitched in 25,000. For some conference attendees, media companies sponsoring media literacy represents a problem.
JIM MEDROCK: You don't go out and get sponsors who you might be critical of in the very nature of doing your job!
PAUL INGLES: Jim Medrock is a media activist from Alabama campaigning to keep commercial interests out of the schools. Get corporate funding, he says, but get it somewhere else.
JIM MEDROCK: You should never take any money from Time Warner! Because then you at least give the perception that you're -- there's undue influence there or that you're withholding criticism.
PAUL INGLES: AMLA board members say their bylaws ensure that a media sponsor wouldn't influence any stance the board might take. Because member Renee Hobbs, a professor at Babson College outside Boston, favors partnering with media corporations. She's even developed media literacy materials under contract with Channel One, the controversial in-school sponsored news program owned by AOL Time Warner. Hobbs says the AMLA won't be able to get the media literacy message into the mainstream without the support of big media.
RENEE HOBBS: Those folks have come to us and said help me find a way for my company to support you! And we treasure those relationships, because those are people in media companies who are parents and citizens too!-- who are vitally concerned about bringing these skills to kids just the same way we are! They just happen to be in different places.
JOHN STAUBER: It's just-- the height of naivete to say well somebody really friendly and concerned called me from these corporations. I can tell you that's called public relations!
PAUL INGLES: John Stauber runs the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy which tracks efforts by corporations to manage public perception and the news media.
JOHN STAUBER: Corporations know how to defeat movements for democracy, social justice, public education, public health and I don't think it's just this movement; this is happening in the environmental movement, the consumer movement-- the family farm movement.
PAUL INGLES: But David Eisner, senior vice president of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, says his company's goal is not to undermine the media literacy movement but to strengthen it.
MAN: There will be a lot of issues that we discuss from, from how non-commercial content find its [sic], finds its way onto the Internet to how we can make sure that cable is a more open environment to how consumers can be best educated about what content is most suited for them. The AMLA, as they already seem to, understand that they can help us figure out some of these key and very complex issues.
RENEE HOBBS: They want 72 million kids media literate.
PAUL INGLES: AMLA board member Renee Hobbs.
RENEE HOBBS: Now they want it for different reasons maybe than I do -- but they share the vision.
PAUL INGLES: Hobbs hopes to convince her colleagues that a fire wall can be maintained between the entities and that media company sponsorship of media literacy won't damage the movement's credibility. Others fear this debate is just the start of a permanent split in the movement, just as it readies itself for prime time. For On the Media, I'm Paul Ingles.