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Media values supplant churches, families and schools

With media supplanting the influence of family, church and school, John Caputo has focused for many years on educating people to be aware of that influence through media literacy.

John Caputo discusses responsibie media
John Caputo

Believing that more than media literacy is needed to challenge the misuse of mainstream media, he found options for action at the national Media Reform Conference in January at Memphis.

Those options include advocacy and supporting small, independent, alternative media.

John, who is professor of communication and chair of the master’s program in communication and leadership studies at Gonzaga University, directs the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media (NW-ARM).

The alliance promotes the media literacy movement, which grew in the 1990s to address families’ concerns about how TV program were changing social values and causing violence.

John often leads workshops and teaches on media literacy.

At the Media Reform Conference, he was one of 2,500 media leaders, activists, entertainers, educators and community leaders challenging broadcast deregulation and proposing regulations to prevent the media from usurping the power of citizens.

“We have been oblivious for years, because media entertain us.  Founders of radio realized mass media could be powerful.  In the Radio Act of 1933, the Federal Communication Commission said radio should serve the public good and be part of the fourth estate as watchdogs of government,” John said.

“With the ‘massification’ of media, there has been grassroots concern about media impact on community and life.  The United States is the most media saturated society, yet we are slow to realize its impact,” he said. 

Teaching an undergraduate course, he first saw the video, “Killing Us Softly,” by Jean Kilbourne, raising questions about the content and influence of media on the society we live in.

“In the male-dominated Italian culture I am from, it opened my eyes on gender issues,” said John, who earned his doctoral degree at Claremont Graduate School and University Center.

He has been teaching communication for more than 30 years.

 Other societies began media literacy before the United States. Free trade treaties required other countries to accept U.S. media products, so they developed media literacy to protect their citizens.

“Media are some of our largest exports.  Media in other countries cannot compete,” John said.  “It’s like China exporting cheap products to the United States, so U.S. manufacturers cannot compete.”

 British TV, for example, couldn’t buy “60 Minutes” without buying a package of other shows they didn’t want, shows with sexual and violent content.

Because Canada was concerned about the content of entertainment but could not black out U.S. TV shows in several provinces, its leaders made media literacy a required course in schools.  They sought to help people become critical consumers in the free marketplace of media.

“U.S. media did not represent their culture, so media literacy helps people critically identify values promoted in entertainment media,” John said, adding that fundamentalist Muslims are concerned about the western values in media products that are not compatible with their values.

The intent of media literacy is to train people to evaluate critically how media manipulate, what values they present, who they aim to reach, what the profit motives are in an ever increasing world of corporate global media.

 “Media products with violence and sex are cheaper to produce and easy to translate because there is little dialogue,” John said.

“Today parents give children permission to go around the world and see adult content before they give them permission to walk across a street,” he said.  “The TV is like a guest in the house, but if a guest spoke crudely or was violent, we would ask the guest to leave.”

Local managers, national networks, writers, producers and advertisers each claim the other is responsible for content.  It’s a “vicious cycle,” with each hiding under the First Amendment protection of free speech.

When the Chicago Tribune bought the Los Angeles Times, it decided 20 percent profit was not enough, so it downsized the Times’ international correspondents, saying people don’t want world news in a local paper. 

“They felt they could increase profits and readers would not care about the content,” John said.

“Is profit the main reason to have a newspaper?” he asked.  “The corporate entity is not interested in the social contract media have traditionally had related to citizens’ need to know.”

Today, there are only three American news organizations in Iraq, the New York Times, the Washington Post and occasionally USA Today.

“In this war, there are no eyes to see, no ears to hear and no voices to tell the story.  In whose interest is that?  It’s not in our interest as a society,” he said.

So John believes both media literacy and media reform are needed.  He said that the recent Media Reform Conference stirred voices of those who would change the media system and policies, making media accountable to provide dialogue needed for democracy.

“People do care,” John learned.  “The conference revitalized me.  It was like a revival.”

Held on Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend, the conference focused on civil rights and human rights themes, with all asking for a voice in creating a more democratic process.  Participants are concerned that media are run by just a few corporations.

“The problem has become worse as big corporations seek to control content and limit access to the internet for payment and advertising. There is little variety in newspapers.  Many are dying, struggling to fill ad space as they compete with multimedia.

“Those who write and tell the stories influence our lives.  If we do not have voice, if stories are not heard or told, they become invisible.  The solution is not censorship but representation of voices,” said John.

The voices of women remain underrepresented in media, he said, and pornography—driven by greed—abuses women.

John favors increasing voices to give people choices.  He believes that if more voices are represented, we will receive different stories than are now reported. 

“Hip-hop music, particularly gangster rap which has a negative impact on society, became popular, not because of widespread interest but because radio stations are paid to play it, eliminating competition,” he said. 

With few local radio stations and declining government funding of public radio, there are fewer choices and voices.

“While most discussion of media has centered around the First Amendment and free speech, we need to talk about the Fourth Amendment, and work for the health and welfare of children,” John said.

“We now have corporate speech, not individual free expression,” he said.  “The First Amendment is about individual rights, talking, conversing, discussing different ideas and forming religious groups.  It was not written to protect corporate speech or to give the person with the most money and the biggest megaphone the biggest voice to the masses.”

As media become beholden to the corporate entities that support political parties, John pointed out, they can’t challenge the corporate entities, some of which are now economically larger than some countries.  No other industry has as much lobbying power, with a media lobbyist for every Representative and Senator. 

John, who attends Assumption Catholic Church, said reforms in other areas of society can’t be made without media reform to make it possible for people to raise their voices on poverty, war, peace, abortion, human rights. 

“How media tell stories affects how we see the world.  They need to represent the underrepresented people’s stories.  There can be no campaign reform without media reform,” he said.

John sees many people now concerned and ready to act, plus openness in Congress.

In addition, he believes support of local, independent media can also challenge other media to be more responsible about their choices.

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Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © May 2007