Why Media Education Matters

Today’s post is a reprint of a letter titled “Why Media Education Matters,” written by Sut Jhally, founder and executive director of Media Education Foundation. This message explains the truly urgent need for media literacy education.

“We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.”

Dear MEF Friends and Colleagues,

The bottom-line pressures of our commercial media system are in the process of delivering a deathblow to American journalism. The demise of print journalism and the rise of the image have essentially forced the mainstream news media into the entertainment business. And the consequences for public discourse have been devastating. As author Chris Hedges has pointed out, the loss of independent journalism is “impoverishing our civil discourse, leaving us less and less connected to the world around us, plunging larger and larger parts of our society into dark holes and opening up greater opportunities for unchecked corruption, disinformation, and the abuse of power.” By filling the information void created by media consolidation and rampant commercialism with half-truths and ever more fantastic spectacles, corporations have built what Hedges has called an “empire of illusion.”

And in the empire of illusion, reality has met its match.

Climate change, resource and species depletion, domestic financial disaster, and shocks to the global capitalist system bring us face-to-face with what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called an “apocalyptic zero-point,” nbut the media-advertising-public-relations complex has been up to the task. In just one of many examples, upwards of 40 percent of Americans now disagree with the overwhelming consensus of international scientists who say that human beings are causing climate change, and that not changing course will be catastrophic, choosing instead to throw their lot in with the paid roster of corporate-sponsored “scientists,” “experts,” and politicians who have been offering up comforting illusions in the face of inconvenient realities.

The traditional intellectual function of colleges and universities seems more crucial than ever in this environment of mass denial and distraction. The work of teachers, researchers, scholars, and writers in many ways represents a last bulwark against the encroachments of commercial illusion that have spread across the wider culture. When I founded MEF 20 years ago, I couldn’t have known this. My primary goal was to distribute my first film, Dreamworlds, and to add my voice to the many others who were fighting for the legitimacy of popular culture as a field of study. I had no idea at the time just how important media education, media educators, and critical inquiry of this kind would become just two decades later: not only as a means of intellectual self-defense, but as a defense against threats to democracy and civil society.

Stuart Hall seems to me to have gotten it just right when he said that intellectuals have two primary responsibilities: to understand the world as objectively as it can be understood, and to communicate that understanding to the wider public beyond the realm of specialized intellectuals. On our 20th anniversary, with the stakes higher than they have ever been, I couldn’t be more grateful that MEF remains dedicated to exactly those goals.

Best wishes for a productive academic year,

Sut Jhally

Founder and Executive Director

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