Media&Values Quarterly Corners Common Sense

The following article by TV critic Howard Rosenberg, appeared in the Los Angeles Times August 8, 1986.

The heavenly hoopla continues.

While the righteous religious right of presidential-minded Pat Robertson, Gospel-honking Jimmy Swaggart and TV-dancing Jerry Falwell rules the headlines and airwaves, though, who is ruling the high ground?

While the electronic clergy's demagogic media bashers make noise, who is making sense?

Los Angeles-based Media&Values — the only magazine of its kind in the nation — that's who. Published quarterly, it's simply terrific.

The executive editor is a Catholic nun; the associate editor a Jew.

Yes, it's "an interfaith media magazine"; no it doesn't publish angry, hip-shooting harangues. Yes it's concerned about the impact of mass communications — from TV to music — on society; no it doesn't make media a scapegoat. Media&Values preaches thoughtfulness and awareness, not hyperbole and censorship.

"We can achieve media consciousness through our values and by not letting the media wash over us like a wave," said Sister Elizabeth Thoman, CHM, who has directed the magazine from the start and likes to be called Liz.

The magazine business is perilous for everyone, but especially so for a nonprofit publication focusing on the media. So with a paid circulation of only 2,500, Media&Values is no giant. Besides subscriptions, it relies on contributions and foundations for support.

Its target readers are "thousands of pastors, youth leaders, religious educators and family counselors;" its contents are designed to help them help others face the increasing media challenge.

No matter the audience, though, Media&Values is just plain smart.

Issues Explore Hot Topics

Writers contributing articles have ranged from Nicholas Meyer, who directed ABC's controversial nuclear holocaust movie The Day After, to George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at University of Pennsylvania.

Each edition has a theme. The spring issue, titled Making the Media Work for You, was a valuable primer that included an analysis of The Cosby Show by its producers.

The preceding edition dealt dispassionately and exhaustively with a volatile topic that has some government and fundamentalist circles in a tizzy. Far from a shrill diatribe against the so-called evils of contemporary music, though, the Rock and Its Role issue defined the challenges of rock music in tones and shades.

"Some have simply tried to 'ban and burn' rock music, hoping, I guess, to burn up Satan, who according to my information, is already burning," notes the author.

And later, "Can we admit that popular music is not essentially evil, even though at times this music carries a clearly negative message?

"Could we consider the possibility that music is not simply causing our problems, but instead showing us what our problems really are?

"Could we even allow ourselves to listen more carefully to all the music of our times, negative as well as positive, and hear the hurts, the fears, and the misguided attempts to love alongside the happy relationships? When you hear today's music you are hearing the whole spectrum of human experience, from the negative to the positive."

Emory College doctoral candidate Deborah Finn wrote in the same issue:

"Perhaps we need to understand more clearly that rock and roll began and still endures as an expression — rather than as a source — of values. If we censor the explicit sexual content of popular music, we will not be eradicating the sexual interests of its listeners."

The fall 1985 issue — Violence and Sexual Violence in the Media — was equally bold in balancing arguments for freedom-of-speech rights and freedom-from-sexual-violence rights. Wrote James Wall, editor of the Christian Century:

"Strong supporters of the First Amendment argue that every television set has an off button. But such a response is simplistic, as is suggesting that we need no regulations against drug peddling, since every child has a right to say no."

Media&Values is high-minded without having its head in the clouds. It's pragmatic, advising its readers on such tactics as how to start an anti-sexual-violence-in-the-media committee. The concluding tip:

"Be careful of generalizations. And keep your sense of humor. God made us human and sexual persons. Not everything is 'smut.'"

"Our only ignorance."

The magazine takes its own advice about a sense of humor. Witness the Charlotte Observer editorial cartoon about rocking and rolling for the needy that Thoman included in the rock-music issue. A stereotypic nun in a habit holding an electric guitar says to her Mother Superior: "I wanna feed the hungry, serve the poor and lead a life of noble self-sacrifice - so I've decided to become a rock n' roll star."

No one can accuse Media&Values of being stodgy, either. The coming issue is devoted to sports and the media. "Another one we're cooking up is the increasing problem of militarism in the media," Thoman said. That includes those Army recruitment commercials that paint a dreamy picture of military service.

It should be no surprise that this clear-thinking - but impoverished - publication does not originate from a swanky, thick-carpeted suite in Century City.

Try a three-room flat in a working-class section of the Pico-Robertson area. Thoman lives in another flat downstairs.

Media&Values began in one of Thoman's bedrooms, then moved up stairs to its present quarters, whose earthy chic includes desks consisting of painted doors mounted on cinder blocks.

The full-time staff comprises the 43-year old Thoman, a former journalism teacher who has a master's degree in communications management, and associate editor Rosalind Silver, 37, who has a master's degree in journalism. They're assisted by some student interns and volunteers.

The magazine's budget this year is a mere $100,000, mostly for salaries. "It's really hard," Thoman said. "We're dramatically undercapitalized. It's very debilitating to always be on a shoestring. Right now we have a big promotion to send out, but we don't have the postage." Thoman said there was also some doubt whether she and Silver would get their next paychecks.

Some moguls.

Media&Values began nine years ago as a newsletter published by the Center for Communications Ministry. In January, 1984, the magazine was taken over by the Media Action Research Center, Inc., in cooperation with 13 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish agencies.

"We started January, 1984, with no bank balance, some assets, some experience, a small, dedicated staff and 1,000 subscribers," Thoman said. Although experiencing some hard times, the magazine has grown dramatically, doubling its size to 24 pages and more than doubling its circulation. Thoman is shooting for 10,000 to 12,000 subscribers and more bulk orders like the one she got from a college bookstore recently.

And why not? Media&Values has cornered the market. "Our only competition," Thoman said, "is ignorance."