by Ben Weingarten
New Jersey is enlisting public-school teachers and librarians to show children how to combat what it calls the grave threat of disinformation.
“Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of disinformation,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in signing the nation’s first law mandating “information literacy” instruction for all K-12 students. The law, which aims to provide students with the “critical thinking” skills necessary to differentiate between “facts, points of view, and opinions” will, Murphy proclaimed, ensure “that our kids … possess the skills needed to discern fact from fiction.”
At a time when the nation’s political and thought leaders are wrestling over the meaning of facts and truth, and distinctions between disinformation, misinformation and plain old information, the New Jersey bill is part of a growing effort to have teachers tell students how to settle these questions.
Since 2016, ten states controlled by Democratic legislators, and three run by Republicans, have passed “media literacy” laws.
Demand for media literacy education has seemingly grown in the “fake news” age, buoying bills like New Jersey’s, which had languished for years, only to pass with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Media literacy advocates such as Erin McNeill, President of Media Literacy Now, say the goal is to teach students “how to consume information, not what information to consume.”
But other educational experts see information and media literacy as inherently political, or minimally ripe for politicization.
The “guise of ‘media literacy,’” writes John Sailer, a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars, “often functions as a trojan horse, casting certain political views” – conservative ones, say critics – “as prima facie wrong and biased.”
The progressive politics of those backing information and media literacy bills in some states give skeptics further pause – concerns heightened by rhetoric like that of Gov. Murphy, who framed New Jersey’s bill as responsive to the “violent insurrection” of Jan. 6, 2021.
Joshua Aikens, a Republican candidate for the New Jersey assembly and former chairman of AriseNJ, an advocacy group focused on electing school board members, told RCI he believes the bill will “be politically weaponized” to target “young impressionable minds.”
Republicans in Delaware and Illinois largely opposed media literacy bills that passed in their states on similar grounds.
Still others question the policy push on its merits. Robert Pondiscio, a former public-school teacher who is a senior fellow at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, sees media literacy as one of many “tips and tricks” educators tout that skirts a more fundamental issue: Children suffer from a “base-knowledge problem,” lacking command of rudimentary facts necessary to analyze content.
One long-time New Jersey public-school teacher, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said of the state’s bill: “Media literacy? There is no reading literacy in 80 percent of urban schools.”
Nevertheless, at least seven states Red and Blue are currently considering media literacy legislation aimed at children. Such efforts are occurring as Democratic Senators – sometimes joined by their Republican colleagues – work to include media literacy in proposed federal laws. The Biden administration has embedded media literacy not only in proposed education regulations, but codified it in national security policy, arguing that disinformation threatens the homeland.
“If the U.S. military has recognized the importance of improving media literacy training,” McNeill, a veteran, told RCI, “it makes sense to ensure our children are developing these skills as well.”
The emphasis on media literacy has grown alongside a burgeoning counter-disinformation industry, illustrated by the “Twitter Files,” linking the national security apparatus to Big Tech, corporate media, and related watchdogs. Critics on both the left and right are casting this as evidence of a growing “censorship-industrial complex” – one ironically fueled by claims of Trump-Russia collusion that proved false, and key COVID-19 claims cast as false but ultimately rendered true.
The press release announcing the passage of New Jersey’s law notes that the legislation builds on state counter-disinformation efforts, including its homeland security agency’s 2022 launch of a “disinformation portal,” which aims “to assist the public in identifying and vetting…truth-obscuring, manufactured information.”
This framing further alarms information and media literacy skeptics. Stanley Kurtz, education expert at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, says that “media literacy … embodies the leftist view of so-called disinformation,” treating “even the most respectable conservative bloggers and podcasters” as illegitimate.
“A pernicious proposal to set up a ‘government disinformation board’” – a reference to the Biden administration’s attempt to create a counter-disinformation body within DHS last year – “may have been shot down at the federal level,” Kurtz told RCI. “[B]ut the state of New Jersey … has just injected something like a government disinformation board into its own schools. Other states, be warned.”
‘Media Literacy Is Social Justice’
The information and media literacy movement has been around for decades. Earlier bills, passed by then-wholly or partly-Republican-controlled states such as Ohio (2009), Florida (2013) and Utah (2015), like newer incarnations, contain largely neutral and anodyne language. Predating fears over disinformation, media literacy was often baked into broader efforts aimed at equipping students to be competent “digital citizens” capable of making “smart media and online choices” in a social media-dominated world – as Utah legislators put it. Progressive-tied groups have long supported these efforts, but any such tinge to them was perhaps less apparent.
Two of the most prominent media literacy advocacy groups, suggested in part by their roles as sole named endorsers of recent federal media literacy legislation, are the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), and its partner, McNeill’s Media Literacy Now.
Founded in 1997, NAMLE bills itself as the nation’s “leading voice, convener, and resource for media literacy education.” The umbrella group now comprises 6,500 members and 82 organizational partners. It publishes an academic journal and hosts various media literacy conferences.
NAMLE defines media literacy – like state and federal authorities – innocuously, as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”
Resources on its site suggest media literacy education compels students to ask basic questions about the nature and intent of the content they encounter, and the motives of its producers. The aim is to “empower people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators, and active citizens” – goals universally favored by those interviewed in connection with this story.
The group stresses that media literacy education is “not partisan.”
But, warns Kurtz, “the education left excels at lending a bipartisan sheen to what are in fact deeply politicized programs and proposals.”
Perhaps illustrating this point, the organization’s more recent activities and recommended resources suggest a growing progressive push.
NAMLE’s 2022 U.S. Media Literacy Week conference concluded with a day dedicated to “acting” – the “culmination of media literacy.” The organization recommended one could act by promoting “positive change by supporting social justice issues.”
This is consistent with NAMLE’s 2021 annual conference, which the group devoted to media literacy and social justice. In a note explaining why it chose that theme, the group said that, “Media literacy has many connections with social justice; in fact, many would say that media literacy is social justice.”
Sailer reported that “critical media literacy” – a pedagogy with Marxist roots akin to critical race theory – suffused some 17 presentations during the conference.
As NAMLE summarized it, by revealing the powers behind media messages and stereotypes within them, and “the effects that propaganda and mis/dis-information have on our politics and how they perpetuate injustices against marginalized groups, the environment, and our sociopolitical climate,” media literacy “helps us to understand issues of systemic inequity … while also inspiring action, critical change.”
Woke-Leaning ‘Critical Media Literacy’
The group’s conferences dating back to at least 2015 have included breakout sessions featuring topics like critical media literacy and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Among the group’s suggested resources are those on “Race, Equity, and Social Justice.” A sampling of such materials include: Education Week’s “Teaching Math Through a Social Justice Lens;” Microsoft’s “Anti-Racism Journey for Educators with Students;” “Teach the History of Policing,” a resource from the Howard Zinn-linked Zinn Education Project; and PBS’s “Three Ways to Teach the Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”
NAMLE counts among its partners the Critical Media Project, a leading resource for students and teachers in critical media literacy pedagogy; NewsGuard, a media watchdog some argue is biased against the right; and iCivics, which education experts like Kurtz argue supports anti-racism and Critical Race Theory– part and parcel of an “action civics” push some say encourages leftist agitation, in which media literacy is often embedded. iCivics takes issue with Kurtz’s “Woke” characterizations.
NAMLE is funded by social media companies that have been accused of censorship, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the progressive Tides Foundation, and the U.S. State Department, which links NAMLE to the federal government’s media literacy push.
NAMLE’s executive director, Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, who describes herself on her Instagram account as “Pro-choice. Anti-gun. LGBTQ ally. Educating myself to be anti-racist,” did not respond to RCI’s inquiries regarding the group’s seemingly progressive edge, nor about the nature of the federal funding her organization has received.
Founded in 2013, nonprofit Media Literacy Now aims “to drive systemic change to ensure that all young people have an opportunity [to] experience comprehensive media literacy education.” It touts its work helping pass 20 bills across 10 states relating to media literacy.
Like NAMLE, Media Literacy Now casts itself as a “politically neutral” organization while recommending resources on “Race & Social Justice” – including the Critical Media Project – as well as those covering “Gender.”
When asked if her organization was a proponent of critical media literacy, McNeill told RCI it was not. Lipkin did not reply to the same question, but NAMLE’s seems to endorse critical media literacy in the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” section of its organizational policies.
Media Literacy Now is backed by, among others, Ad Fontes Media, whose resources it also recommends. The company’s “Interactive Media Bias Chart” ranks the New York Times, Politico, and Washington Post as among the most reliable of the 30,000 sources it covers, as measured by original fact reporting, and as having a “Middle or Balanced Bias.” The most reliable source per its ratings is NBC News, which it positions as marginally right biased.
Federal records show that Media Literacy Now, like NAMLE, has received State Department funding in the form of a $30,000 grant aimed at advancing the “quality of media literacy education in Germany.”
These two groups are linked to New Jersey’s information literacy bill through NAMLE’s sponsorship of Media Literacy Now, which backed the legislation, as well as through NAMLE’s National Media Literacy Alliance, which includes the American Association of School Librarians. Multiple groups that lobbied for the state’s bill are affiliates.
Some have credited Media Literacy Now’s New Jersey chapter leader, Olga Polites, with playing an “instrumental” role in the passage of the state’s information literacy law. The Rowan University Professor’s past writings have raised concerns among some Republicans, who fear the politics she has espoused will pervade the legislation she shepherded.
In a 2021 opinion piece Polites wrote in support of mandated media literacy education, she called Fox News anchors Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and talk radio stars Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin “bad actors.” She also cast the Daily Caller as “not credible at all because [it] traffic[s] in lies and conspiracy theories,” while highlighting the Washington Post as a “trusted newspaper.”
Polites suggested that basic skills in media literacy “might enable students to understand … why white insurrectionists were treated so differently than Black Lives Matter protesters” – coincidentally the thrust of the media literacy component of NAMLE’s suggested Capitol riot resource.
Asked why New Jerseyans should have confidence such politics won’t pervade the state’s classrooms under its information literacy bill, Polites told RCI that the bill was “spearheaded by the New Jersey Association of School Librarians.” “The standards will be developed by the state education agency under the usual process for developing standards,” she said.
The Leftist Bent of Other Literacy Laws
It is unclear what New Jersey’s information literacy standards will look like. But the process by which they will be developed, and the competing views voiced by interested observers, parallel those in other states, and may presage future battles as scrutiny of public school activities nationwide intensifies.
Materials endorsed by other states pursuant to their media literacy laws may provide a clue as to what New Jersey will embrace under its legislation.
California’s senate passed a bill in 2018 calling for the state’s education department to make available a list of resources and instructional materials on media literacy. Among the curricula it lists are those from the Critical Media Project, as well as the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Learning for Justice” project.
Colorado’s education department, which was required by law in 2021 to create a media literacy resource bank, too includes the Critical Media Project therein.
Illinois’ media literacy bill, passed in 2021, requires every public high school to include in its curriculum a “unit of instruction” on media literacy. NAMLE and Media Literacy Now serve on a coalition working to implement the law.
Among the coalition’s suggested resources are a Center for Media Literacy text titled “Teaching Democracy: A Media Literacy Approach.” It notes that “Media literacy activities should stimulate critical thinking by asking profound questions of constructedness, equity, and social justice about media texts, while building respect for multiple perspectives.” The coalition also directs users to iCivics’ resources.
RCI did not encounter any media literacy resources in connection with this investigation associated with right-leaning organizations.
Many of the resources recommended by states have no apparent political slant.
A potential issue though, says Sailer, is that “Media literacy can mean almost anything, depending on who uses the term…it’s very much susceptible to political concept creep.”
Mike Lilley, President and Founder of the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey, a watchdog focused on the actions of the New Jersey Education Association, a backer of the information literacy bill, told RCI that the law’s “language … seems pretty balanced and uncontroversial.” The overwhelming backing of state Republicans, and groups who do not always vote in lockstep with the state’s more progressive-leaning educational associations, lead Lilley to surmise it is not “some sort of Trojan Horse for progressive ideology.”
Kurtz is less sanguine, telling RCI that “many Republican legislators—particularly in blue states—are eager to work across the aisle, yet poorly versed in the latest leftist education fads.”
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Ben Weingarten is a contributor at RealClearInvestigations. Follow Weingarten on Twitter at @bhweingarten.