Coalition takes on TV - and its ads - broadcast in schools

The young anchors could have been cast for a new "WB" show, and the commercials bring everything from zit cream to summer blockbusters into classrooms.

But in between, there's coverage of weighty news like the Timothy McVeigh execution and an occasional plug to turn kids off drugs.

Channel One may not be the equivalent of MTV in the classroom. But for Gary Ruskin of the group Commercial Alert, the 12-minute cable broadcast shown in 12,000 American schools isn't much better.

Mr. Ruskin, who co-founded Commercial Alert with Ralph Nader, is heading a coalition to eliminate Channel One. Last week, the group of conservatives and liberals - including organizations like the United Methodist Church and individuals like actor Matt Damon - sent letters to advertisers, Congress, and all subscribing schools, asking them to sever ties with the program.

But the grass-roots movement to free schools from ads and other commercial activity is stepping on embryonic legal ground. According to a September 2000 report by the US General Accounting Office, 19 states regulate commercial activity in schools, yet 14 of those have only limited statutes - like Virginia's law prohibiting advertising on school buses.

Among last-minute amendments to the education bill passed last week by the US Senate was a measure to limit market research in classrooms. Ruskin thinks the legislation - in part a response to the GAO report - has Channel One worried that federal restrictions affecting their dealings with schools will follow.

Meanwhile, schools, which are trying to keep pace with technology even as they're forced to cinch belts, are loath to turn down free television sets.

Cheryl Weatherby, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson Sr. High School in Auburn, Wash., says her school was completely bare of circuits and TVs before it agreed to run Channel One's program about six years ago. She opposes the commercial content (two minutes of the daily broadcast) and finds the other 10 minutes superficial. "If I had a choice of keeping it in school or taking it out, I'd vote to take it out," she says, adding that she rarely turns on the program.

Jeff Jeanotte, a senior at the school, says that he's had only one teacher who consistently showed Channel One. Only the commercials -apparently great fodder for classroom antics -managed to captivate his classmates. It seems like "five minutes of news and 10 minutes of commercials," he says.

Social studies teacher Tom Germino says he doesn't mind an occasional M&M jingle if the channel helps students keep up with current events. "I choose to use it because most of these kids would never read the newspaper," he says. If he sees what he considers bias in the coverage - as he did during the presidential election last fall - he points that out to students.

But for Ruskin, it's not just messages spewing from ads that potentially harm students. It's the message adults and educators send to kids the moment a tube is set atop a desk or cantilevered above a classroom. "We ought to encourage kids in school to read, not to gaze," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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