- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

A tactical diversion by opponents is afoot

Members of the Senate have been seeking to discourage schools from entering into public-private partnerships. In debating this issue, Congress should avoid lumping independent journalism in the same category as cash for exclusive beverage "pouring" rights or "free" equipment deals.

Opponents of the private sector have waged an ongoing campaign to convince the federal government that it must protect schools from themselves from entering into agreements with the private sector. They cite an (if true, remarkable) incident about a student who was suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on the school's "Coke day," and criticized a major spaghetti sauce firm for encouraging science teachers to have students test different sauces for thickness as part of their science classes.

But all too often, though, attacks on these locally negotiated commercial relationships include ads students encounter when being exposed to the news.

Specifically, many of these critics focus on Channel One, an award-winning daily news program in many secondary schools which provides schools with televisions, VCRs, and satellite dishes, along with other significant educational programming. Even as these critics of commercialism acknowledge the value of Channel One, they attack it for being an advertising supported "business."

Well, so too are the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, and MSNBC all of which are seen in classrooms advertising-supported "businesses." But they are also independent sources of information that can substantially augment the curriculum. Moreover, there is at least one key difference between ads for soda pop and ads in a local newspaper. The sole purpose of a snack food ad is to sell snack food; by contrast, the ads in a local newspaper are not for the "product" itself. Rather, ads carried by journalists are incidental to, and supportive of, the "product" i.e., the independent source of information to which the students are exposed.

Indeed, Ralph Nader, a leading critic of public-private partnerships and a frequent critic of in-school television news services, recently recommended that Congress appropriate "a few million dollars to produce all the tapes equivalent to what Channel One is now producing."

That kind of thinking is squarely at odds with Americans' deeply held belief that critical thinking will best be cultivated in students and adults if they are exposed to diverse sources of information, not just those that are state-approved. Taken at its word, this effort might even imperil student newspapers, many of which rely heavily on local advertising.

Equating advertising-sponsored journalism with ads for snack foods and soda pop ignores the importance of advertising in the development of a free press. Few realize that what spurred the development of newspapers during the colonial era was advertising. Most newspapers were at least 50 percent advertising. In fact, the first daily newspaper in colonial America, in 1784, was called the Pennsylvania Packet and General Advertiser. Ads were normally carried on the front page. Not until the Civil War was interest in news sufficient to push ads off the front page. Even today, the average newspaper strives for an advertising/content ratio of 70 percent advertising to 30 percent news content. Yet the oft-criticized Channel One shows at least 10 minutes of news content and never has more than two minutes of ads per day.

This history in no way suggests that newspapers and television news programs are merely means of attracting attention to advertisements. Journalists have developed a tradition of independence that has often led news organizations to make decisions that do not necessarily serve their economic self-interest, such as the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. Without advertising, though, few if any of the news stories we rely on and which have shaped our culture would have been written.

The social studies teacher in the New York high school I attended demanded that we read the front page and news summary of the New York Times every day; we were quizzed on the news once a week. He did not worry that, in reading the newspaper, we would also be seeing whatever ads it carried including, at the time, ads for tobacco and alcohol products. He was trying to train us to be informed citizens and, to him, such citizens read a daily newspaper. Even today, national education organizations that oppose school commercialism team up with Channel One and with newspapers such as USA Today.

Television has become a vital source of news. Indeed, the vast majority of the population cites television as their sole source of information. In the course of watching the news (or reading news on the Internet), the reader inevitably encounters advertising. That experience is different in kind, however, from school halls plastered with soft drink ads.

Moreover, there are substantial First Amendment concerns about the federal government scrutinizing arrangements made by localities with various news sources. The Constitution expressly prohibits "Congress" from making any law prohibiting free speech. Even if not unconstitutional outright, the prospect of the federal government reviewing arrangements with news sources and pronouncing some acceptable or appropriate and some not, presents the specter of censorious decisions being made based on the journalists' content and viewpoint. It would also be troubling, from a First Amendment perspective, for Congress to bless newspapers or Internet news programs in the classroom while taking action against television news programs.

By all means, Congress, debate about commercialism in schools, if you must. Just leave journalism out of it.

Daniel E. Troy practices constitutional and appellate litigation in Washington. His firm represents the Newspaper Association of America and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. The views expressed here are his own.

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