Supervising the Media 'Classroom'

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During the recent tumultuous national political season, much was made of the irascibility or even outright anger of the electorate. Most of the causes of discontent are not hard to identify--the arrogance of office, legislative gridlock, negative campaigning, the apparent corrosive effect of lobbyists bearing gifts, and so on. But, as far as I know, no one has pointed out the connection between the voters' mood and poor "lesson planning" and below-par teaching skills.

In this case, I'm not talking about classroom teachers, but about TV anchor people and the media superstars who run the popular and influential Sunday-morning panel talk shows.

Like most people, I get a huge chunk of my information from television. So I did my civic duty and watched as much as I could of the give and take from both sides of the aisle on the major issues of the day, particularly healthcare reform and anti-crime legislation.

But the more I watched, the more my unease and confusion grew. Admittedly, the issues are complex, and I may be a slow learner, but with all the time and effort expended, some clarity should have emerged. Clearly, something was wrong with the presentation.

Gradually, my focus began to shift from the politicos and the pundits to the moderator, and I ended by evaluating interview and panel discussions not as "shows" but as "classroom discussions." And based on some of the pedagogic fundamentals I had learned and tried to apply in more than 30 years in high school and college classrooms, the TV lessons I observed, despite the glitz and slickness, were clear failures. Moderators and interviewers were simply not very good teachers and could have used the kind of supervision I regularly got when my principal or chairperson slid unannounced into a rear seat of my classroom, pad and pencil at the ready and critical faculties cocked and loaded.

For example, the "aim" of one program after another was at best murky and, even worse, misguided. Ostensibly, discussions and interviews are aimed at illuminating the public on important issues. But by the perverse standards of the news, media the fact of violent disagreement is considered more newsworthy than the substance of disagreement.

Therefore, charges and countercharges were consistently left hanging in the air, unresolved. No competent teacher would allow contradictory positions to remain unchallenged and undocumented. Does the legislation under consideration really propose this or that? Would the crime bill put 100,000 new police on our streets or only 2,000? When and for how long? Would the health-reform proposals create a massive new government bureaucracy that would increase expenditures or actually cut down on costs? In that kind of situation, any English teacher worth his or her salt knows enough to get right to the text.

But voters perpetually find themselves in an irritating intellectual maze, confronted with a media storm of contradictory "facts." A recent and typical example of what I'm talking about occurred on the much-admired "This Week With David Brinkley." Vice President Gore expressed his opposition to California's Proposition 187, among other reasons, because he claimed it would turn the state's teachers into policemen checking up on their students' resident status. George Will, a regular panelist on the show, countered that, quite the contrary, the measure would exempt teachers from such a role. Undeterred, the Vice President, later in the interview, came back to this issue and claimed that 187 would have teacher and principal gumshoes checking i.d. cards and "turning alien children out into the streets."

Sitting in my den 3,000 miles away from California, I wondered what was the truth. But the participants went on to other things and the question was never cleared up. As a "student-voter," I was completely confused, and another nettle was added to the growing irritation with what passes for media education. And, as a supervisor-observer, I would have to note in my report that Mr. Brinkley & Company have to sharpen their focus on the "textbook" in question.

Another problem is that many interviewers and anchor persons act like beginning teachers determined to stick to their lesson plan at all costs, regardless of how the discussion develops. But experienced teachers, particularly in English and the social sciences, know that some of the best lessons are the result of scrapping a plan and following a student reaction or question into an unanticipated direction. But again and again the TV anchor-moderator clearly has his inner eye on the question he will doggedly ask regardless of its relevance and regardless of how provocative or startling the previous discussion has been. It's as though the teacher hasn't been listening to what the students are saying.

For example, in January, again on the Brinkley show, Sam Donaldson interrupted Christopher Dodd in mid-sentence, while the Connecticut senator was making a point about the loss of once secure jobs in his state. They had been talking about the future of the American economy, but Teacher Donaldson's inner eye was focused not on the topic under discussion, but on whether or not Mr. Dodd was going to become Democratic national chairman.

When that sort of thing happens, I have visions of thousands of frustrated viewers raising their hands on the other side of the screen with questions aimed at getting back to the earlier track.

Year after year, my colleagues and I in the classroom trenches griped about how we were observed and written up by our supervisors regardless of how competent we became, though I have to admit that probably everyone can improve and sharpen his skills with some helpful criticism. However, the national mood should tell us that we clearly need the same kind of close monitoring of what goes on in our TV studios. Media moguls should be required to take some education school supervisory courses. Then we might get a better educated--and a more cheerful--electorate.

Vol. 14, Issue 28, Page 47

Published in Print: April 5, 1995, as Supervising the Media 'Classroom'
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