The Supreme Court recently struck down parts of a 1992 law requiring cable TV operators to restrict sexually explicit programming on public-access channels. The decision is widely seen as a victory for defenders of free speech.
Yet the justices seem to be crossing their fingers, hoping that parents, rather than cable companies or the government, will know how to keep their children out of harm's way on the tube.
How reasonable a hope is this? Aren't parents taught what to watch for in the torrent of programming that pours from the electronic baby-sitter? Aren't they taught how to watch out for what their children are seeing on TV?
In most cases, the answer is no. We're taught how to read (so we can read to our children), and we're taught how to drive (so we can drive them to school). But we don't spend any time learning the "best" or the "right" way to do the one thing our children likely spend more time doing than either reading or sitting in school - that is, watching TV.
Adapting critical skills
The situation isn't hopeless, however. There's no reason the critical skills we teach in reading books - or even the defensive driving skills we teach on the roads - can't be adapted to the remote control, mouse, or screen.
In fact, a movement called "media literacy" has been gaining currency in some parts of the country. New Mexico's public-school system strongly supports it, and it can be found in Boston, Los Angeles, and Canada.
Media literacy begins with the notion that since censorship is abhorrent to our cherished values of free speech, we should learn how to avoid being tricked by misleading advertising and bamboozled by video's smoke and mirrors, as well as how to steer clear of toxic-waste dumps on the screen.
Advocates of media literacy compare the burgeoning channels on television to swimming pools in people's back yards. How do we keep our neighbors' children from falling in and drowning? One option is to put a high fence around every pool. A better solution is to make sure our children learn how to swim. Becoming media literate, then, means learning to swim in the media, knowing where it's safe, and when to climb out.
Media literacy means teaching our children to ask questions about what they watch so they can process what they've just seen, rather than absorbing it passively and uncritically.
They will learn to ask: Who wants me to see these pictures and why? What are they trying to get me to think or do, and why? Why, for instance, are the producers using slow-motion, or black-and-white, or that manipulative camera angle, or that music or sound effect, to lull or excite me into a particular mood?
The best defense against unfiltered and unfettered media is not an official censor or a cable company gatekeeper who decides what can or can't be broadcast. The best defense is, rather, an active, critical attitude on the part of viewers. Children can be taught to accept that they're still too young to be exposed to some images of behavior, just as they're still too young to drive a car. But children are rarely too young to be asked to talk about what they like to watch, or to be reminded that what they see on the tube is different than their lives at home or on the playground.
The worst reaction we could have to the justices' defense of free speech on cable TV (or in print, or in cyberspace) is to throw up our hands and say, "Oh, it doesn't matter what anyone watches." The quality of our viewing - and thus, in a media-saturated world, the quality of our lives - depends directly on the care we take in making our choices of what to watch and what to turn off.
The timing of this early-summer court decision may even be propitious. As the presidential election approaches, there's still time for both political parties and the candidates to respond by committing themselves to a full-bore educational campaign in support of media literacy.
Rather than allowing a nation of more zoned-out couch potatoes, this Supreme Court decision should strengthen our resolve to become smarter viewers.
*Brian Stonehill directs the Media Studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.