This weekend I attended the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) here in Boston. The event, coordinated by our friends at Free Press, brought together over 2500 advocates for media justice from all over the world. It was electrifying to be among so many passionate, creative, hardworking media reform activists. What inspired me most about the conference was the diversity of issues on which we were able to connect. Individuals and organizations gathered to address issues critical to the development of a fair and democratic media system, issues ranging from war coverage to immigrant rights, from government accountability to gender equality. The mood of the conference was one of jubilation and solidarity.
So you can imagine my surprise when I was the single person to cheer after Congressman Ed Markey, in his animated keynote to a full house Saturday night, called for children's television rules to "stay on the books and stay strong." It’s not that the audience didn’t like what Rep. Markey had to say. On the contrary, happy noise from the crowd punctuated his calls for responsible environmental policies, funding for public television and, of course, net neutrality. His comments about children's TV regulation met relative silence because media reform is not, by and large, considered a children’s issue. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. A major goal of media reform is for media to give voice to and serve the needs of all people, not just the power elite. Children are the most vulnerable group in any society—and spend more time with media than they do in school—so it is especially important that media serve them well.
Our current media system does not serve children well at all. As those who follow the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s work know, programming on TV, the Internet, in films, etc. is used to deliver kids to corporate advertisers who exploit their developmental vulnerabilities to sell bad products (junk food, violent movies, sexualized dolls) and worse values (material things will make us happy, violence is the answer to conflict, women are sexual objects). An overwhelming majority of children’s media in this country is not offered with children’s health and well-being in mind, but to fill corporate coffers.
Apart from sessions on media literacy and education (which are no doubt important subjects) only a handful of NCMR sessions focused on children’s media issues. Jean Kilbourne and Diana Martinez presented with CCFC co-founder Diane Levin on media and marketing’s damaging sexualization of young girls. The screening and discussion of Media Education Foundation’s Mean World Syndrome showed how television and Hollywood create a hyperviolent culture that breeds paralyzing and volatile fear among children and adults. These sessions demonstrate that children’s issues can and should be integrated into the movement for media justice and reform. And it is in the best interest of our common goals that we do so.
When we talk about the need for laws to protect net neutrality, we must also talk about the need for regulation to protect children’s privacy as they surf the web. Marketers track children’s behavior online and target them with highly personalized and sophisticated messages manipulating them into being “good” consumers. In today’s media landscape, these messages are much louder and more powerful than those urging children to be good citizens.
When we talk about the need for media literacy in classrooms, we must also talk about the need to boot marketers from classrooms. As we fight to strengthen independent media outside of school walls, we need to challenge companies like Channel One, which delivers corporate and military advertising to a captive student audience. If we want to foster a population of critically thinking citizens, we must take on advertisers that rob children of precious school time in order to advance their own agendas.
As we petition the FCC to hold broadcasters accountable for serving the public interest, we should make sure children are included among that public on whose behalf we speak. We must make sure the FCC upholds the few laws we have protecting children from overcommercialization and not allow the blatant disregard of these rules. We need to stop shows like Zevo-3, the new cartoon by Nickelodeon and Skechers, which is based on the sneaker giant’s advertising spokescharacters and is essentially one long sales pitch. And we need to make sure that regulators prevent marketers from falsely advertising media aimed at babies as educational when research doesn’t support those claims.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has been working for ten years on issues like these as the media reform movement has blossomed from a few dedicated individuals to a critical mass of advocates, educators and lawmakers—thanks in no small part to Free Press. We urge this powerful group of change-makers to include advertising to children on its action list and invite media reformers to join us in the movement to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers. We must work together to limit predatory marketers’ access to children and preserve what Markey, quoting Robert F. Kennedy, called "the joy of [children's] play"—that magical imaginative process that is the foundation of learning and critical thinking and key to a healthy democratic society. The future of the media reform movement, children, and democracy, depends on it.