A potential vehicle for propaganda

Henry Aubin
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 reconsider.

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 hob-nailed boots.

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? Plenty.

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.