BOB GARFIELD: Media literacy is gaining legitimacy. In colleges and many well to do high schools, learning to decode commercials and recognize bias increasingly is seen as valuable preparation for life in a media world. But let's face it, in most places, it's still an elective. But put a media literacy class in a different environment, like, say, at The Fortune Society, and it becomes almost essential. The Fortune Society is a community-based organization that helps ex-offenders transition to life out of prison. OTM's Jad Abumrad sat in on a few classes.
JAD ABUMRAD: On this Monday, like most, Eric Appleton begins his Media Literacy class by handing out a newspaper article. This one is about the Immokalee tomato pickers in Florida.
ERIC APPLETON: ...in this case, people who are usually perceived as having no power, right, are banding together and they're using the media.
JAD ABUMRAD: The 7 students, seated in a small circle on under-sized school chairs each read a paragraph, beginning with Rafael, age 20.
RAPHAEL: "Early on a Sunday evening workers in Immokalee are recuperating from a long week and gearing up to start another one."
JAD ABUMRAD: It is Raphael's first day in Media Literacy class. After spending time in jail on a weapons charge, this is a new experience for him -- reading and then thinking critically about what he reads. The newspaper article claims that since tomato pickers are paid 45 cents for each bucket they make 50 dollars for two tons of tomatoes. The class determined that since each bucket was 32 pounds--
ERIC APPLETON: You've got to divide 4,000 by 32--
JAD ABUMRAD: The real wage is closer to 41 dollars for every 2 tons.
ERIC APPLETON: -- 41.25. [LAUGHTER] The media's even lying! Yeah!
JAD ABUMRAD: That there would be an inaccuracy in a piece of reporting does not surprise anyone here. It would be hard to find a collection of people that are more cynical toward the media which to most of them means TV news.
IVAN: The media is going to report what it want' but it's also go-- it's also manipulated.
ANTHONY: For me, personally, I don't feed into the media. I can't.
ROSLYN: They, they-- they are like vultures. They'll do anything and everything to get a story.
ERIC APPLETON: I can't, I can't even fathom, like, what their perspective is because a lot of this is about me learning about the depth of cynicism that exists.
JAD ABUMRAD: Instructor Eric Appleton thinks the reason may be that his students equate media with the things that put them behind bars --government, society, authority -- but even though they distrust the media, Eric says his students still feel the need to be a part of it.
JESSE SMITHERMAN: This is what keeps me out' the crack house! By me doing this here, I ain't got time to do nothing else. The Media Literacy class is actually therapy!
JAD ABUMRAD: Jesse Smitherman has been in and out of prison his entire adult life.
JESSE SMITHERMAN: I had a problem, man. I wa-- I was-- I had a drug problem! And every time I got out of prison I just would go back to the same old lifestyle -- again, and, and again, and again and again.
JAD ABUMRAD: But this time, he says, is different. In class Jesse has learned word processing, web research techniques and desk top publishing, and all of these skills are evident in his new passion -- creating and distributing public awareness flyers. He carries a stack in his briefcase on nuclear fallout and pollution at Ground Zero. Often after class he'll rush to the computer and create an instant PSA with graphics based around the day's reading. Then, in his suit and wire rim glasses, he'll stand on a streetcorner and hand them out.
JESSE SMITHERMAN: Most of the people that I give this information to, they're like oh, wow! Yeah! There's a 1 800 number or information regarding this subject matter; there's a web site if you, if you have a computer....
JAD ABUMRAD: For Jesse, Media Literacy is his way of re-connecting with society, and he's not alone.
ROSLYN: My name is Roslyn Gallin [sp?]. I'm 42 years old. I came to the Fortune Society to change my life.
JAD ABUMRAD: For Roslyn who's also struggled with drugs for 30 years, the media offer a way out of solitude -- a chance to listen and be listened to.
ROSLYN: Cause I feel like I really have a hell of a story to tell.
JAD ABUMRAD: As part of her recovery, she's actually been on TV and radio. The rehabilitation facility where she lives imposes a strict curfew, so when she can't go out, she turns to radio talk shows.
ROSLYN: Because you never know what subject they might pick that you can identify with to help you say that I'm not alone. Somebody else is going through this -- somebody else feel this -- somebody else thinks this.
JAD ABUMRAD: A few nights ago she caught a show where the topic was young girls who pursue older men. She thought of her own situation. At 14 she married a man who was 28, had 6 kids and then couldn't support them.
ROSLYN: And I just wanted to reach out and tell them, you know, you're making a mistake. You have time for that. Live your live out.
JAD ABUMRAD: Most of the students here like Rosyln and Jesse are in the process of reclaiming their lives, and that's the not-so-hidden meaning behind the tomato picker article the class reads today.
ANTHONY: The first action against the Immokalee growers took place in 1995. More than 4,000 workers....
JAD ABUMRAD: When the Immokalee tomato pickers began to demonstrate for better wages, they distributed videos of the demonstrations to other members. The article describes crowds of workers gathering to watch those videos again and again. Rafael reads.
RAFAEL: "That's why the videos are so popular. They allow the coalition members to see themself externally as they see themselves internally as people who have the power to better themselves and act on their own behalf."
JAD ABUMRAD: To most, Media Literacy is an academic pursuit. But to this group of people, this unusual class, the emphasis is not on achieving a cerebral distance from the media tidal wave. Rather, it's about diving in and learning to swim into the wider world. For On the Media this is Jad Abumrad. [MUSIC]
"If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)"
by Meshell Ndegeocello