COMPLAINING about commercial TV has replaced baseball as America's national pastime: bashings and killings for viewers of all ages, pulpy romances, the politicization of the talk-show circuit, and commercial clutter. Presidents complain, congressmen decry, churchmen declaim. Nothing happens. We keep on watching -- and complaining.
Television has become the most powerful human force in the daily lives of Americans. TV content influences events and the way we perceive them.
A new movement for media literacy argues otherwise. In classrooms, teachers' training workshops, adult study forums, and homes, the campaign for media literacy is a quiet but pervasive response to the growth of commercial media power. The media literacy movement provides the counterforce that empowers viewers, listeners, and readers to become media-wise; to bring a critical eye and ear to what they see and hear, and to talk back to the tube.
In the summer of 1993, there was one national teacher-training workshop in media literacy. This past summer, there were 15, including a week-long institute that I attended at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., with 60 others, which included mostly public school teachers who were bringing media education to classrooms. Media literacy education is based on these principles:
a) TV reconstructs reality for an editorial purpose. Research confirms that if we watch more killings on commercial television than we encounter in daily life, we perceive a mean and violent world, and react accordingly to such policy issues as fighting crime and building jails.
b) Behind everything that commercial TV airs is profit. The objective of the product is not to amuse or inform, but to deliver large, targeted audiences to sponsors as a commodity, in exchange for sales dollars.
c) Competitive pressures among them drive media to amplify what they carry beyond its significance. For example, the synergy of newsmagazines interacting with television news produces imitative coverage of Newt Gingrich, O.J. Simpson, and other sensations of the moment. Economic imperatives limit diversity on the tube rather than enhance it.
d) Media filters set the public agenda and influence behavior. When newsmagazines are preoccupied with drugs, so is television, and so is the public. If the major heroes on television are sports figures and cops, Nobel prize-winners earn only a passing glance in our culture.
Media literacy studies engage the gears of the conscious, critical mind. They teach viewers of all ages not to imbibe video mindlessly by the hour, but to make selective viewing choices and to ''deconstruct'' and examine what they've seen, to increase awareness to how messagemakers influence or manipulate.
While media literacy classes consider newspapers, magazines, and films, they tend to emphasize television, now the most powerful dispenser of media messages.
In the classroom, media literacy is sometimes taught as a stand-alone sequence. But more often, it's integrated into English, math, and social science courses.
In more and more public schools, children are gaining mastery over the medium by learning how to produce television ads and programs in their schools. Since all TV is educational, the point is not to demonize it, but to underscore its positive power to work for society.
On the adult level, media literacy workshops involve the sharpening of critical viewing skills, and the development of shared family-viewing routines.''
Media literacy also informs citizen action -- activities such as campaigns to improve local cable and station programming or to influence government and industry communications policies.
France, Spain, Canada, Britain, and Australia have made media education a school requirement for years. ''American educators,'' says Prof. Renee Hobbs of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., ''have tended to trivialize media culture and demonize television. But media culture now is our culture. We need to bring critical viewing skills to American classrooms, and arm adults to reinforce those skills at home.''
A leader of the media literacy movement is the Assembly of Media Arts of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill.
In many schools, media literacy begins at the elementary level. Pupils do critical viewing, then discuss the contents and techniques used in what they've seen. They're made aware that digital technologies mean that photographs can be changed as easily as text, to produce images as untrustworthy as loaded words.
They study nightly news programs, comparing their editorial content with the newspaper's, and decide which stories most accurately reconstructed the events. They discuss issues such as why TV newscasts are saturated with O.J. Simpson coverage at the expense of more meaningful stories.
At a middle school in Billerica, Mass., students are screening and decoding TV advertising. They study the ''hooks'' that sponsors build into Saturday morning toy and game ads designed to turn them into ''I wannas.''
Through an Ad Lab, Billerica high school students have produced TV campaigns against smoking, violence, and sexual harassment, which have been aired over the classroom system and local public-access cable.
On the adult level, staff specialists for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., conduct church-based programs that offer adults group guidance on how to parent in the TV age. They teach other media trainers to expand the work.
At University High School in Urbana, Ill., producer Jay Rosenstein teaches a course in documentary appreciation and production. Students analyze content and structure, then produce their own documentaries, which have been aired on the local public television station.
Opposition to media-literacy education springs from a number of sources: those who suspect that video literacy merely converts a classroom into a viewing theater, or who fear that critical thinking may alter the power balance in American society.
Communications scholar Neil Postman of New York University has a succinct response:
''Some people would say that media education is radical. That depends on what you mean by radical. If you believe that education is about not only making a living but making an intelligent life, then media literacy is radical in the best, most constructive sense of the word.''