Channel One: Beware of hucksters bearing gifts
By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
Fundraising has been a familiar part of the educational experience for generations of Illinois children. Youngsters hawk wares ranging from cheese and sausage to magazine subscriptions, while parents collect aluminum cans and soup labels, all in the interest of filling wish lists for items that can't be justified, or don't fit, within the regular school budget. So it probably should come as no great surprise to learn that some enterprising business people and some budget-conscious educators have come up with what one would hope will be the final word in school fundraising — selling access to the kids themselves.
The scheme is straightforward. Whittle Communications, a Tennessee-based corporation, is willing to provide a truck-load of fancy electronic equipment to any school district that will guarantee it two minutes a day to condition students' minds with its advertising messages. Oh, to be sure, the 30-second spots are packaged with 10 minutes of youth-oriented news items to give the commercial enterprise an educational veneer, but only the most naive would believe the firm's goal is to make kids better informed about current events.
The proposal — called Channel One — was big news here in Springfield for a few weeks, until the local school board had the good sense to turn down the deal despite support from some educational leaders, including the local school superintendent and the head of the local teachers' union.
There are good reasons to applaud Springfield's decision to reject the Faustian bargain and to hope other school boards are equally principled, for the scheme's alleged benefits pale in comparison to its drawbacks.
Quite clearly, the apple so tempting to the education community is the free equipment, in Springfield's case about $240,000 worth of television sets, VCRs, satellite dishes and other gear. To enjoy the use of all that gadgetry, however, the school district would have had to agree to show the 12-minute program to virtually all middle and high school students even day for three years.
Channel One's apologists touted the supposed educational value of exposing youngsters to a daily dose of TV news. Left unsaid was where those 12 minutes would come from, what areas of study might be shortchanged so the mandatory daily dose of commercials packaged in news could be slipped in. Indeed, a compelling case could be made that U.S. schools should devote more, not less, time to academic pursuits. One could also argue that kids already spend too much time in front of the television and too little time reading, but why shoot fish in a barrel?
Even if one defines Channel One as an educational experience, integrating the newscast into an organized curriculum would be most challenging. News events follow no neat outline; breaking news in particular is driven by random events, not logical planning. If Central America happened to be the topic of the middle-school geography unit when the United States invaded Panama in December, then bravo! for the relevance of the news. If the topic was Australia, however, a teacher would be extremely hard pressed, if not totally stymied, to make a connection. Likewise, science teachers might be frustrated if the next earthquake occurs while their students are learning about the human circulatory system, or if a breakthrough in heart transplants comes while they're studying plate tectonics.
More troubling was the observation by some who saw Channel One's sample newscasts that hard news was given short shrift in favor of soft features. Consider: How does one relate a fuzzy piece about the New Kids on the Block to either geography or science? While that's hardly a new complaint about television news, it makes even more suspect the service's
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The most objectionable aspect of the arrangement, however, is clearly its commercialism. From the advertiser's point of view, of course, Channel One is heavensent. At a time when TV remote controls and VCRs allow viewers to zap, mute, flip ind skip commercials. Channel One not only serves up a captive audience, but in the process targets one of the most desirable demographic groups in society, the adolescent.
The fervent hope, of course, is that all these impressionable young minds can be convinced that the only way to be cool and avoid terminal geekdom is to own the right designer jeans or the correct brand of sneakers, never mind the cost. While that's the blatant pitch, such commercials also send a more subtle message, one that reinforces the pervasive materialism and self-indulgence that has become something of a secular religion in today's America.
From the federal government's $3 trillion debt on down to the two wage-earner family drowning in credit card statements, we adore spending. "Shop 'til you drop" could be our creed; the nearest mall our place of worship. Never mind that our national profligacy has given Japan much more of our real estate than Emperor Hirohito ever envisioned when his planes bombed Pearl Harbor; forget that we've papered over a huge chunk of our national debt by "borrowing" the dollars millions of average Americans are counting on for a secure retirement. Gaudeamus igitur — let future generations pay, and let Channel One prepare them to be conspicuous consumers on their own.
Indeed, it's ironic, but one could argue that such attitudes have helped bring us to the juncture where respected school administrators seriously weigh trading free access to their young charges' minds in return for equipment their stunted budgets can't cover. Therein lies the real outrage of Channel One: It's one more assault on moderation, one more strident voice preaching the gospel of instant gratification, one more affirmation that possessions define an individual's worth.
That's not a message our schools should condone for our children, no matter how many gold pieces the hucksters offer.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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