`WHO is Yitzhak Rabin? Who is Hosni Mubarak? Why were these men meeting in Egypt? What does Mubarak's plan call for? Why do you think the Israelis are listening?'' As his seventh-grade social studies class watches a brand-new weekday TV program designed for schools and known as ``CNN Newsroom'' teacher Birney Groom scans these questions provided on a supplementary discussion sheet. When the video newsreel is over, each table of students chooses their favorite offering to discuss. And with the help of the provided study guide, Mr. Groom leads class discussion.
Fresh on the heels of another television news program known as ``Channel One'' - which raised hackles when it was test-marketed last March chock full of jean and soft-drink ads - ``CNN Newsroom'' is scot-free of commercials.
The daily 15-minute offering, culled from the same global, 24-hour news-gathering resources that support the eight-year old Cable News Network, also comes at no cost to schools.
Unveiled here last week, the ``CNN Newsroom'' segment is broadcast nationwide at 3:45 a.m. (EDT) on CNN, the Atlanta-based news network begun by Ted Turner in 1981. Teachers are intended to record CNN on videocassette recorders for use at their convenience. The daily classroom guide, put together by the same educators that worked on a previous CNN program called ``News Access,'' is available through an electronic modem that hooks into the school's existing computer and printing systems.
Unlike ``Channel One,'' which was lambasted in the press for its blitzkrieg style of visuals and disco-beat music, ``CNN Newsroom'' has been called ``vastly worthier'' in content by the Los Angeles Times. CNN officials say the content has been geared to student interests - but not ``dumbed down.''
Each 15-minute show begins with a news desk segment to review the day's top stories, fronted by youthful co-anchors Brian Todd and Cassandra Henderson. Included is at least one longer ``focus'' report treating one major story in depth. The second segment, known as ``Special Report,'' deals with a different discipline each day: the future, international events, business, science, and on Friday a segment known as ``Editor's Desk'' featuring the week's biggest story.
The prospect has at least one major-city school-district salivating.
``This program is about the application of learning and the making sense of life outside the classroom,'' says Tom Boysen, superintendent of San Diego County Schools. ``What's new about this is its attempt to be interactive in sparking discussion of real issues. Our object is not just to look at the program and have business as usual - to me that's practicing the kind of passivity TV sometimes breeds at home - but to have students use what they see in their reading, writing and discussion groups.''
With four major cable networks cooperating in the venture, San Diego County's 500 schools have the most coordinated offering of ``CNN Newsroom'' yet available in the country. Other cities trying ``CNN Newsroom'' on a limited basis this school year are Orlando and St. Louis.
According to Laurie Runyon, account executive for CNN's western region, special field units will gather features for the program. Those CNN segments of obvious interest to students will also be re-packaged for the program.
Besides a rundown of each day's content and possible discussion angles, the support material suggests reading lists, classroom and homework assignments, and ways to incorporate material into subjects already being taught in middle and secondary schools. At the kickoff demonstration here at the Farb Middle School, ``CNN Newsroom'' got a virtual 100 percent approval rating.
``This is more interesting than using newspapers in class because you actually get to see what's going on in some far place,'' says 12-year-old Thanh Chau. ``It's more useful because instead of some picture frozen in time, you get a feeling for what a situation is like,'' adds Meghane Weaver, aged 10. ``Like what it looks like to be a Palestinian.''
``It's going to be a great tool for getting students of all ages interested in the news,'' adds Groom, who digressed from his first-day's program to explain the formation of Israel after World War II and to discuss the Palestinian question.
The advent of two similar shows aimed at the same student audiences nationwide has sparked a heated debate about the content and commercial interests behind them. Despite positive reviews by educators for the concept of Whittle Communication's ``Channel One'' for instance, state and national officials charged the show with exploiting a captive, teenage audience for commercial gain. ``Channel One'' had offered $50,000 worth of additional enticements, including a TV for every classroom and two video recorders.
CNN's Ted Turner, by contrast, reversed his original plan to use commercials after hearing complaints from educators. He said the multimillion dollar cost of ``CNN Newsroom'' would be absorbed elsewhere in his cable business.
``The benefits of both these offerings far outweigh the dangers,'' says Garth Jowett, a professor of communications at the University of Houston, who has written numerous histories on the social effects of television. ``American mass media have never done a great deal to improve the educational system of this country and this seems to be a harnessing to good purpose,'' he says.
Harking back to the days when book covers were splashed with advertisements of local businesses, Mr. Jowett says commercialism and kids have grown up together, and kids know how to ``discount'' such messages far more easily than adults give them credit for. A more subtle danger than commercials is the possible ideological biases of those formulating the programs, Jowett adds. ``But even on those grounds the American mass media has gotten pretty balanced.''
In announcing the new use of ``CNN Newsroom,'' San Diego School's Mr. Boysen told of a talk he had in the mid-'70s with Albert Speer, Hitler's minister of armaments, then in Spandau Prison. Speer described his own high school education as filled with wonderful knowledge of the history of Rome and other civilizations and loaded with facts about science and math.
``But he said he had almost no knowledge of politics or social studies nor about the ability to form opinions about the events of the world,'' says Boysen.
``Therefore, he said he was predisposed to accept the word from those on top - the official word on such matters.''
Boysen thinks the strength of America and democracy is precisely commensurate with its citizens' knowledge of, and participation in, current affairs.
``Politicians and teachers are always complaining of the notoriously low level of participation in politics by those ages 18 to 24,'' says Boysen. ``This is a forceful step in the right direction for getting those numbers up.''