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Cinema Journal 39.4 (2000) 94-101

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Critical Media Studies and the North American Media Literacy Movement

Jim Wehmeyer

While many of us have been professionally ensconced in North American colleges and universities, dutifully building and institutionalizing critical film, media, and cultural studies programs over the course of the 1990s, a similar if far more decentralized and loosely coordinated project has been under construction outside the walls of Academe. Serious critical discourse concerning the possible psychological, social, political, and cultural ramifications of the pervasive and ever-expanding mass media has been circulating through primary and secondary school classrooms, community meeting halls, church basements, and public libraries. Informed by a mix of theoretical stances and methodological approaches that must serve a wide and sometimes disparate range of cultural assumptions, ideological positions, and political intentions, these discussions have come to promote both the idea and the practice of some form of media literacy as the necessary response to, if not the inoculation against, the lived experience of media-saturated lives. And at least some of those who are engaged with the creation and dissemination of this media literacy are part of the larger media literacy campaign.

This essay is neither a descriptive history nor a critical analysis of the media literacy movement. The bibliography below includes some places to which the reader might turn for such accounts. This essay instead is a tentative consideration of the potential for alignment between the work of this popular movement and the academic/critical media studies project.

By way of thinking through a few of my own "encounters" with the media literacy movement, I want to suggest that it is not best understood as an activist or a popular spin-off of the critical media studies project, as one might at first assume. Instead, many of this movement's central theoretical concerns and operative assumptions echo and provide a contemporary forum for the primarily psychologically and biologically informed threads of mass communication theory and research that so dominated U.S. academic understanding of media, society, and culture in the mid-twentieth century. This scholarship has continued to shape a large portion of traditional mass communication theory since. Thus, the media literacy movement renews and updates the popular concerns over the relationship between mass media and the changing sociocultural norms of 1950s and 1960s America, the so-called mass culture debates.

My initial response to "discovering" the media literacy movement a few years ago as a card-carrying and tenure-tracking member of the critical media studies project was a mixture of surprise, arrogance, and suspicion. Of course, the surprise may have simply been a result of spending a good part of the 1990s teaching a 4-4 course load at a bargain-basement, publicly funded liberal arts college tucked away in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Colorado. We sometimes came down to the lands below in search of mates, a two-day-old New York Times, and replacement [End Page 94] parts for our mountain bikes. But that was about it. So it seems fair to say that things tended to catch us off guard.

But still, here was this movement that pushed to have every citizen able to "access, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms." 1 And it appeared able to pull it off, using media literacy curriculum packages at both the primary and secondary school levels: videotapes, CD-ROMS, and three-ringed binders filled with media analysis exercises (or "deconstructions") designed for classrooms and community halls alike, not to mention newsletters, Web sites, and discussion lists distributed through a number of media literacy centers across the U.S. and Canada. These packages were filled with practical advice and updates on boycotts and activist gatherings, conferences, and other "literacy events."

Soon enough, my surprise gave way to trickle-down arrogance: the word was out! Our teaching, our writing, our work as film historians, as analysts of radio and television culture, and as new media watchdogs-cum-celebrants was entering and influencing public discourse--and making a difference. That difference was this...


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