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Donald Trump’s Reality TV Campaign Heightens Need for Media Literacy

The new Fox series “The Grinder” is built around an amusing premise that’s really just a variation on an old joke: An actor played a lawyer on TV for so long that people — including the star himself — actually think he knows his way around a courtroom.

Similarly, people are so awash in media that they no doubt feel like experts on how it works. Yet this year’s presidential campaign and other events offer reminders of how viewers are often less sophisticated about the way the camera alters events, and bends perceptions of reality, beginning with the misnomer that is “reality” television.

Journalist Jeff Greenfield recently proposed that some of those responding positively to Donald Trump’s candidacy have a TV-mediated sense of the real-estate mogul’s persona, viewing him as a decisive leader because he acted like one on “The Apprentice.” Trump might possess those qualities, but a carefully edited and staged reality show is hardly the venue to appraise them.

Similarly, a recent reality-TV controversy also warranted a bit more skepticism: A discussion about promoting diversity within Hollywood between Matt Damon and African-American producer Effie Brown on the new season of HBO’s “Project Greenlight.” While Damon sounded tone-deaf, one shouldn’t overlook the desire to gin up conflict in a vehicle that not only features Damon as an actor, but on which he serves as a producer, too. Tellingly, his subsequent apology included a disclaimer that additional comments that might have helped contextualize his remarks “did not make the show.”

So while viewers are more immersed in media than ever, via an expanded array of screens, their ability to critically evaluate that tide of information doesn’t appear to be keeping pace. “People are definitely constructing media more than ever, and that’s great,” says Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy. But in terms of grasping how narrative techniques shape such material, she adds, “There are many holes in people’s understanding of that process.”

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies this concept than the media’s current relationship with Trump, who has wedded performance skills with what seems like an innate understanding of the media’s appetite for drama and love of a good feud. While news outlets have engaged in what amounts to real-time soul-searching about their role in perpetuating his run, little has been said about the public’s complicity in lapping up his act, as evidenced by burgeoning ratings that go beyond those who are genuinely smitten by the candidate’s substance, or even his style.

“This campaign more than any in the past has shown us how theatrical politics is,” Jolls says.

Media literacy has long been seen as a necessary tool in intellectually arming children to navigate a steady bombardment of confusing and misleading messages, although Jolls — whose group is planning an outreach event in November — laments that efforts to bring that curriculum to schools remain under-funded, especially in the U.S. Frankly, though, plenty of adults could use an education in these areas as well, with widespread cynicism toward media and news not necessarily making us better informed.

In 1993, Tolls’ predecessor, Elizabeth Thoman, was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times about the need for greater media literacy “as questionable reality shows flood TV” — notably, years before “Survivor” or “Big Brother” ushered in the genre’s modern era. “TV is so powerful and gets you because it’s visual,” Thoman said at the time. “So one of the first things you have to teach children is that not everything on TV is right or necessarily true.”

Thoman also warned, presciently, that media is “where our children are going to live in the 21st century.” Well, that future is now. And based on most of the available evidence, if this is a test, we’re flunking.

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