A potential vehicle for propaganda
The Montreal Gazette - Wednesday 21 July 1999
Ask most people for an example of propaganda,
and they'll probably mention Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Saddam
Hussein's Iraq. Or maybe the other side in Quebec's referendum wars.
Our concept of what constitutes propaganda is
so narrow and obsolete that we don't recognize it when we're awash in
it. Just ask the well-intentioned people who sit on the governing boards
of three local high schools - Beaconsfield, Hudson and Macdonald. With
the support of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, they actually voted
to pipe the stuff electronically into their classrooms on a six-month
trial basis. Now that the education minister, Francois Legault, has
effectively vetoed the scheme, they're anxiously trying to get him to
The chairman of the Pearson board, Marcus
Tabachnick, is so exercised he's even accused Legault of "trampling" on
elected school officials' rights. It's ironic: it's now the
anti-propagandists, of all people, who are seen as wearing the
Of course, Tabachnick and Co. would never dream
of giving so pejorative a term as propaganda to the 12 1/2 minutes of
television fare that a private corporation wants to bring to high-school
students every day. No, for them it would be 2 1/2 minutes of innocent
"advertising" and 10 minutes of straight "news" Sure sounds harmless.
And with all the free computers and other electronic lucre the
corporation offers under-equipped schools for accepting the Youth News
Network, Tabachnick and his colleagues see it as a windfall. So do
authorities at 35 other schools in Ontario, Newfoundland and the
Prairies who have already agreed to admit YNN this fall.
Apologists for YNN's Trojan Horse argue that
our society is already drenched in ads - so, hey, what's a little more?
It's been amazing to see how in the last few
decades advertising has increasingly zeroed in on kids, avidly inducing
insecure adolescents into identifying with confident brand names and
into finding solace in shopping. It's reached the point that it's
actually a prestige thing to serve as a walking corporate billboard
(Nike, Tommy). Far from getting paid to don corporate symbols, kids pay
a premium to do so.
School is now a refuge from such influences, an
islet of learning in a sea of commercialism, but under the YNN plan it
would become a marketers' paradise.
Schools can "deliver the numbers" in classic
propaganda conditions. For one thing, the students represent a captive
audience: they can't change channels or leave the room. This allows for
such techniques as repetition: some advertisers on Channel One, YNN's
counterpart in some U.S. schools, deliberately show the same ads month
after month. (Hey, it works.)
But because the ads are so bright and so witty,
our Trojan educators cannot see any resemblance to the clumsy,
dictator-evoking image of propaganda they've grown up with.
Let's make a distinction between marketing and
propaganda. When an ad flogs a certain product (drink Coke, wear Gap),
that surface message is marketing. But ads collectively - when viewed by
the hundreds - have a subtext: objects are what make you happy. This
subtle propaganda is one of the roots of the society of
over-consumption, and it's not a message that schools should be
inculcating to kids.
So much for the 2 1/2 minutes. The remaining 10,
devoted to news, aren't any more promising.
Many kids are incurious about current events,
but the YNN-style remedy is inherently untrustworthy. The problem is
twofold: you have an audience that is easily impressionable because it
is so young, and you have a medium notorious for its ability to induce
and manipulate intellectual passivity.
I trust CBC-TV news because of its record of
professionalism and of warding off political pressures. Media critics in
newspapers monitor the news and blow the whistle when any network's
coverage becomes too obviously slanted. But who's going to serve as an
outside watchdog for closed-circuit news?
True, YNN offers a committee made up mostly of
educators from the subscribing school boards to oversee news coverage,
but you have to wonder how vigilant it can be over day-to-day
news-coverage decisions. Corporate advertising is what's driving this
venture, and it's easy to think of political and economic issues on
which the corporate community has definite views.
What's also worrisome is the precedent. Even if
YNN should turn out to be impeccably fair in presenting news, who's to
say that the same will be the case for other companies that would follow
it into the school's open door?
We need to think more about the pressures to
turn us into a society of shoppers and malleable voters rather than of
thinking citizens. Step 1 is updating our definition of propaganda.
- Henry Aubin is a Gazette editorial writer.
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