By Nolan Higdon
“It is no longer good enough for us just to say this is what happened or here, this is the news. We have to explain our [inner] working.” So exclaimed Emma Tucker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, as she remarked on the lack of trust among the news consuming public at the January 2024 meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The WEF is a non-governmental organization whose mission is “improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.” Rather than celebrate the existence of more media literate audiences asking important questions, Tucker communicated the concerns of elites at the WEF: that a media literate public threatens their grip on power. Currently, media literacy curriculum is sparsely offered to students in the US. Tucker’s inadvertent admission regarding the power a media literate public has to hold the Fourth Estate to account reveals why that needs to change.
In 1992, media and education scholars in the US developed a definition of media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” However, while many other countries began offering media literacy courses in the late 20th century, the US did not. There was resistance to bringing media into classrooms by traditionalists, those who saw new media as a corrupting influence on education. Further, America’s decentralized schooling system has made it difficult to develop national media literacy requirements and curriculum.
However, the post-2016 moral panic over fake news and reporting around the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic advanced those efforts, making Americans acutely aware of the necessity of media literacy education. In response, many states passed media literacy policies, but they have resulted in few offerings to students and even the existing offerings are limited to teaching about online privacy and safety available to schools. Currently five states mandate some type of media literacy education in the US, including California. That simply is not enough.
When done right, critical media literacy education spurs audiences to ask critical questions about who owns and produces media; what messages are presented and censored; who is represented and how; and what sources journalists use. Tucker expressed frustration that audiences were asking more critical questions about the media remarking, “We kind of owned the news, we were the gatekeepers, and we very much owned the facts as well…If it was said in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, then that was a fact. Nowadays, people can go to all sorts of different sources for the news and they’re much more questioning about what we’re saying.” Tucker says that as if it is a bad thing.
Corporate news media disguising propaganda as journalism is not a recent revelation. In their 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent, scholars Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argued that the corporate ownership structure of media reduced news outlets to little more than business propaganda. They noted and provided mountains of evidence that corporate media would not likely report on stories that threatened their profits, alienated advertisers, or reduced their audience sizes. As a result, the handful of corporations that own 90 percent of the news media in the US provide a narrow scope of the world told with a corporate bias.
Indeed, the dominant corporate news media outlets in the US do not offer programming that villainizes corporations and celebrates average people. Instead, they rely on a hyper-partisan narrative approach (Republican versus Democrat, Team Red versus Team Blue) to programming that protects elites by keeping the public divided along party lines (because it prevents a larger unified movement against elites). Since the 1990s, corporate media have been highly partisan with MSNBC, CNN, New York Times, and Washington Post confirming the Democratic bias of its more liberal audience, while Fox News, Wall Street Journal, and New York Post do the same for the Republican Party bias of their more conservative audience.
Critical media literacy education encourages media users to go beyond the hyper-partisan frames and examine how elite influence in corporate news media results in the propagandizing of the public. This interrogation of corporate media is apparently a threat to organizations like the WEF, which is a highly elitist organization, whose members believe that it is in the best interest of the global community if a coalition of self-selected multinational corporations, governments, and organizations influence the economic direction of the world. That is why Tucker was most certainly lauded by the elites at the WEF when she complained that, “we have to…almost like explain our [inner]working, so readers expect to understand how we source stories. They want us to know how we go about getting stories. We have to sort of lift the bonnet as it were and in a way that newspapers aren’t used to doing and explain to people what we’re doing. We need to be much more transparent about how we go about collecting the news.” Again, Tucker is essentially admitting why the public does not trust major media institutions, where people like Tucker are in charge.
Tucker said the quiet part out loud: elites want the public to be media illiterate and unquestionably accept their corporate and establishment propaganda. When the public tries to hold media accountable by demanding transparency, elites grow agitated and defensive. Although such disdain for the masses from elites is nothing new, Tucker inadvertently made the case for why media literacy education is so desperately needed in the US. She revealed that becoming media literate is a revolutionary act that equips audiences with the skills to confront power by asking questions and making demands of elites to uphold the principles and institutions of democracy. That is why critical media literacy is so vital for meaningful civic engagement and should be mandated in US schools.