News You Can't Use

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Each weekday, in the middle of the night, a videotape recorder at Skowhegan Area Middle School in Maine automatically whirs to life and records a classroom news show produced by the Cable News Network. Teachers show the program, CNN Newsroom, to their students later in the day.

Many mornings in recent weeks, language arts teacher Kathy Evans has arrived at school wondering what the show would have to say about the White House sex scandal. Before she plays the tape each day, she asks her students what news they think the show will open with that day. "The kids all say Clinton," she says.

Evans has tried to steer her discussion of current events away from the more salacious aspects of the story and toward such issues as presidential character, honesty, and due process. "They have understood from day one that none of these allegations is proven," she says of her 8th graders. "They seem to be very open-minded and not judgmental."

All over the country, educators and parents have worried about how to talk about the unfolding story with children, who often know more than we care to admit. This was driven home recently by cartoonist Garry Trudeau in his "Doonesbury" comic strip: A school had brought in a "scandal facilitator" to counsel some supposedly confused 3rd graders. The kids, of course, didn't need any explanation; they already knew all the lurid details.

"It's the kind of story you just can't avoid dealing with," says Carvil Day, a history and government teacher at Renton High School in Washington state. He and others point out that the matter, if dealt with properly, can offer a "teachable moment" on such issues as presidential character, the legal system, and the power of the news media.

While many young people are getting details about the scandal from their parents and grown-up news sources, others are learning about the developments right in the classroom, from TV shows like CNN Newsroom and news magazines tailored for students. Evans, the teacher at Skowhegan Area Middle School in Maine, believes the half-hour, commercial-free CNN show has been responsible in its coverage of the matter. "They've dealt with it honestly," she says, while not dwelling on it every day.

Meanwhile, the producers of Channel One, a classroom news show supported by advertising, say they have barely mentioned the scandal since doing several news spots when the story first broke. "We have stayed away from the world of rumor and innuendo," says Andy Hill, president for programming for Channel One, a 12-minute daily program targeted at high school students.

The many news publications geared toward classroom use also have handled the story delicately. Approaches have varied depending on the periodical's target age group.

My Weekly Reader, the venerable news magazine for elementary school children, has not run anything on the matter and doesn't intend to. "We chose not to do anything until there is a resolution as to whether there is truth being told," says Editor in Chief Sandra Maccarone. Parents, she explains, were emphatic that they did not want their children to read about the allegations in one of the nine Weekly Reader publications. Weekly Reader is owned by New York City-based Primedia Inc., which also owns Channel One.

Editors at Scholastic Corp. heard pretty much the same thing from elementary school educators and child-development experts, so they have left the matter out of elementary editions of their news magazines, too. They did, however, publish advice for teachers and parents on how to deal with children's questions.

"At the secondary level, our advisers told us differently," says Ernest Fleishman, Scholastic's senior vice president for education. "They said our kids need information on presidential scandals." So the high school magazine Scholastic Update included an article that discusses Watergate and other White House scandals of the past.

"One of our concerns is that as kids get hammered with scandals, they may become cynical or apathetic," Fleishman says. "We want to remind them that public service is still admirable and important."

The most recent entrant in the field of classroom publications is Time For Kids, a junior version of Time magazine. Time For Kids Editor Claudia Wallis worried in an essay in the regular version of Time about her 11-year-old son's questions about oral sex, a term that has been ubiquitous in the news coverage of the allegations. While she gave her own child a brief explanation, she wondered in print how all the allegations should be addressed for the 1.7 million young readers of her magazine.

Because they did not want to be the ones to introduce the topic, the editors left any discussion of the allegations out of their primary-grades edition, which goes to 2nd and 3rd grade students. But in the main edition, which goes to 4th through 6th graders, Time For Kids ran a short sidebar about the allegations next to a recent cover story about the president's State of the Union. The story on "Presidential Problems" briefly discussed the reports that Clinton "had a young girlfriend named Monica Lewinsky."

"We felt we should do something short, simple, and clear," Wallis says. "The word 'girlfriend' can sound as innocent or suggestive as a kid can want it to be. It is a familiar word. There were a lot of words we didn't use. We didn't use adultery. We did not mention sex."

Michael Berger, a 4th grade teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Northampton, Pennsylvania, feels lucky that his students at the Roman Catholic school have not bombarded him with lots of sex-related questions. "The kids didn't really push it," he says. "One of the things we did talk about was the fact that these were allegations and they weren't all necessarily true."

Some teachers have used the story to discuss broader themes about government and the presidency, as well as to examine the role of the news media. "It's important for teachers to shift it to the constitutional issues like due process," says George Cassutto, a social studies teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Maryland.

Like a number of other educators, Cassutto says many of his students do not seem concerned about the allegations that Clinton was unfaithful to his wife. "There is a very liberal view about personal affairs," the teacher says. "That may be a reflection of the fact their parents are from the baby-boom generation."

Such laissez-faire attitudes concern some social conservatives. "Truth-telling, respect for the law, and respect for marriage—these are important things for young people to learn in school," says Bob Morrison, an education policy analyst with the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. "We definitely think that private behavior is illustrative of a person's character."

Thomas Lickona, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, believes that the scandal provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to discuss presidential character and moral leadership with their students. "A class could be engaged in what qualities are important in a president," says Lickona, author of Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility. "A president has to set a good example for the rest of the nation. If he acts in ways that are dishonest and unjust, that tends to lower the whole moral standard by which people behave."

Another advocate of character education, George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, says it's wrong to expect the president to be "inhuman." In contrast to those calling for the president to be more forthright in responding to the allegations, Etzioni says people should empathize with Clinton.

"When you ask a person to be completely honest about the most intimate part of his life, are you not pushing him into lying?" says Etzioni, a longtime acquaintance of the president and an organizer of several Clinton White House conferences on character education. "I think the American people have shown remarkable self-control" in judging the president, Etzioni adds. "We're not going to chase him out after a few weeks of trial in the media. Not rushing to judgment is very important as an ethical person. Children should understand how important that is."

—Mark Walsh

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