How I Spent My Summer Vacation…

Several weeks ago, I played hooky from writing this blog to attend an Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society. At the time, I promised to share some of my experiences with you but have been so focused on starting the term that I am just now getting back to you.

Here’s how the Aspen Institute described their goals for the event:

The purpose of the Forum is to develop recommendations for leaders in media, government, and other societal institutions to promote positive social and democratic values through the various communications media without undue governmental regulation. The Forum will explore how the new technological and behavioral environments are changing the way that media — old and new — will serve customers (advertisers/subscribers), users (readers/listeners/viewers/contributors), communities, and the broader social good. After an introductory plenary session describing the drivers and impact of the new media, the Forum will consist of three distinct roundtable tracks, exploring the ways that media may be used to promote an informed citizenry, civic participation, enhancement of community life, and consideration of intellectual property rights and interests.

The Forum brought together government leaders (including U.S. Representatives, current and former members of the Federal Communications Commission), the chief executives of major media companies (old and new), leading academics from a number of different disciplines, lawyers and policy makers, and heads of foundations and non-profit organizations with strong stakes in shaping the future of our media environment. The Aspen Institute events are legendary for creating a social and intellectual climate where people from very different perspectives can exchange views and arrive at meaningful compromises that move forward public policy on a wide array of topics. It was fascinating to watch this process work — not only through formal events (including plenary conversations with heavy hitters like Michael Eisner, Arriane Huffington, Madeleine Albright, and Arthur Sulzberger, round table exchanges among clusters of participants, and more focused working groups designed to brainstorm and make policy recommendations) and informal exchanges (over breakfast, in the line for lunch, or at the cocktail parties and receptions in the evening.) Charles M. Firestone, the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society programs, was an adept moderator, making sure that every position got aired, cutting off conflict, and pushing us towards practical and pragmatic solutions.

One can get a sense of the caliber of the conversations by checking out the streaming webcast versions of some of the key events. While the videos don’t preserve the work process, they do include some of the plenary exchanges which were a highlight of the event. (I am told that videos of the roundtables are forthcoming.)

Sparks flew during the opening session which featured Eisner, Huffington, music industry defender Jon Diamond, and advertising industry leader Lynda Resnick, for a passionate exchange about the current state of the media landscape. Taken as a whole, the group offered us some glimpses into the conflicted and sometimes self-contradictory thinking which is shaping old media’s response to the emergence of a more participatory culture. Here, as throughout the sessions, disagreements about how to handle intellectual property in the digital age shaped more or less every other potential point of contact between old and new media companies.

Another memorable exchange, also available via webcast, paired current FCC chairman Kevin Martin with Vivianne Reding, his counterpart on the European Union’s Commission on the Information Society and Media. Here, we were given textbook illustrations of the difference between how media policy operates under commercial and public service broadcasting models, as well as hints at the very different cultural and political traditions shaping media policy in Europe and the United States.

A third session on the Future of the Newspaper featured Sulzberger (New York Times), Caroline Litttle (Washington Post), Jake Oliver (Afro), Dean Singleton (MediaNews Group), Craig Newmark (craigslist), and Scott Moore (Yahoo!).

I was delighted to see new media literacies emerge as a central theme at the conference from the very opening session. An excerpt from our white paper was circulated to attendees as part of the packet they received in advance of the meeting and seemed to have heightened participant’s awareness of the topic. The idea of young people’s relationship to emerging media was posed by opening remarks from Jeff Cole (USC Annenberg School for Communication), who outlined a series of shifts in the ways younger Americans got their entertainment and information. By the end of the first roundtable, the need for robust and widespread media literacy education (for adults as well as for youth) had become part of the group’s consensus.

This shared investment in media literacy provided me a context for raising what I saw as important issues about the ways that current ambiguities in copyright law are having a chilling effect upon our efforts to develop and circulate materials for media literacy education. It was clear that almost no one at the event had considered the connection between these two issues before.

Here’s how I explained it: I am both a Professor of Literature and a Professor of Media Studies. As a Professor of Literature, I have a pretty good sense of what claims I can make on Fair Use in my work. In writing a printed work about a literary text, I understand roughly how much of a given work I can quote for the purposes of critical commentary and in what contexts; I also know when I need to seek additional permissions and where I can go to get those permissions; for the most part, a system is in place that allows me to pay an appropriate and reasonable rate for my use of those materials.

None of this applies to my work as a media scholar if what I want to do is directly quote from a media text in my own media work for the purposes of critical commentary. There is a pretty well established set of principles and agreements which allow me to show clips in class to my own students and even to break encryption if necessary in order to duplicate and archive those clips. But there is no such protection in place if I wish to circulate materials I have produced amongst other media educators.

Renee Hobbes, Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi are doing research for the MacArthur Foundation, trying to understand teacher’s attitudes towards copyright and how this impacts media literacy education. So far, they are finding enormous fear and much uncertainty regarding many standard pedagogical practices which involve reproducing and sharing media content. Their long term goal is to develop principles of fair use which would provide greater protection to educators, but the effectiveness of these principles rests in part on getting them accepted within the media industry itself. If you want to learn more about this work, you can listen to a podcast of a plenary session we hosted at last spring’s Media in Transition conference.

For the most part, Hollywood has been so aggressive at defending its trademark and copyright control over their content (especially in the context of current battles over Napster and YouTube) that university attorneys typically tell us that we run a risk of legal action if we directly excerpt any segments of commercial media content for distribution in any form or in any context. Surely, these attorneys are being conservative and the courts would no doubt recognize at least some limited notion of fair use defending our use of these materials. But this fear of legal action is creating a chilling effect on the development of instructional resources for media literacy.

If educators wanted, however, to get studio permission for our use of these materials, the history has been equally problematic. There is no established clearing house for identifying and contacting rights holders. The studios often do not respond to our queries and when they do, they set arbitrarily high prices. In one recent case, a faculty member was quoted a price of a thousand dollars a minute for the use of Hollywood content for an educational project — a price which would have quickly bankrupted the initiative. Some organizations are producing media literacy documentaries which include clips from mainstream media, but they have historically felt they were taking major risks in doing so and this has in turn impacted how widely they publicize their efforts.

Thanks to the Aspen Institute, my story was heard by some of the key policy makers and leaders of the entertainment industry. My hope is that this issue will be part of the policy recommendations released by the Institute in the aftermath of our session and that we can use this as a rallying point in brokering a meeting between the Hollywood establishment and key media literacy educators (a possibility raised by several of the industry participants at the event). None of us are ready to declare victory yet but the particular climate of Aspen, which brings key decision makers together in the same space to talk about vexing issues of cultural policy, has made it possible for us to make some real progress on this issue.

One final aside about Aspen: As I found myself making small talk with everyone from the heads of major media companies to former members of the Bush administration, the one topic which seemed to have captured everyone’s interest was Harry Potter. Almost everyone had stories to tell about the experience of reading the final book in the series. In Convergence Culture, I suggested that fan communities might offer us better chances to talk about shared values across the ideological divides that currently shape American politics because they offer us shared fantasies and common reference points. Well, this was a pretty dramatic illustration of that principle at work.