Carlos Cortes

The Children Are Watching

VTR Date: December 8, 2000

Guest: Cortes, Carlos


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Carlos Cortes
Title: “The Children Are Watching”
VTR: 12/8/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though for some reason or other I never had the good sense to invite him to the program to discuss his seminal ideas, I do think that the late Marshall McLuhan was right on target with his comment that every child knows that in a very basic way going to school interrupts his or her education. That increasingly is the actual though seldom admitted province of the media, which occupy much more of our youngsters time than do their schools.

Of course, of all my guests over the years Neil Postman has made that point best. That, as well, to an ever diminishing degree as parents, extended family and friends and the schools to be sure, are still the supposed answer to the basic question: “Where in our times do we learn what it means to be a human being, to be six or sixteen or sixty. Maybe soon even a hundred and six.” The real answer is the media, at the screen, the television screen with all of its new inputs or the computer screen itself. And finally at Teachers College recently, at one of its noted Book Talks, I met a man and read his book, his splendid book that makes this point in a very practical, direct way. The book, published by Teachers College Press is appropriately titled, “The Children Are Watching”. Its author, my guest today is Carlos E. Cortes, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California at Riverside. And my question to him is what are our children learning while they’re watching. Is that a fair question?

CORTES: It’s a fair question. I don’t know if I can answer it precisely. But, of course the … what I look at in my book on “The Children Are Watching”, is of course as the sub-title points out, “How The Media Teach About Diversity”. And what becomes fairly clear from all of this is that in terms of learning about “otherness”, people who are different than themselves, folks .. In fact, people of different racial and ethnic groups and religions with whom they may have very little personal contact, they get a full scale education, very informally from the media itself. Not just television, but as they become literate through newspapers and magazines, when they go to motion pictures or turn on talk radio, it’s almost an omnipresent continuous, you might call it a multi-cultural curriculum, or a curriculum on diversity.

HEFFNER: How do you rank that education and that curriculum.

CORTES: Well, if you want to rank it, I’d say it works both as an ally to schools in some respects. I mean if … there’s some very good things on the media … coming out of the media that help people understand a better understanding of diversity. On the other hand, it becomes quite an antagonist at other kinds of points and is something that I lay out in the book how and where in fact does the school curriculum and the media curriculum in fact collide and other places where they actually enforce each other.

HEFFNER: Now you use the phrase “medium or media curriculum” …

CORTES: Right.

HEFFNER: Why, why do you use that phrase?

CORTES: Well, you know, it’s funny, when I started writing the book, Richard. It was … I said “how do I frame this thing In such a fashion that” … it is an old saw, people have contact with the media, people learn from the media. But I thought well, oh, how do I connect this with the schools. And since we always talk about the curriculum as certainly as being something that comes out of school … I said, “Well, wait a second if in fact, the media are teaching also, then in fact the media become a curriculum of themselves.” And even though it’s not planned, and even though it may not be everyone’s … all the media people may not think of themselves as teachers. In point of fact, when they deal with the issue of diversity, they, in fact, are teaching. And so I laid the two along side of each other as the school curriculum and the media curriculum, and then I could … then it makes some sense that these are both areas from which people can learn, I guess is the best way to say that. And a curriculum is something that is presented from which people can extract learning although we’re not always sure exactly what they’re taking out of it.

HEFFNER: But with some rare exceptions, by an large media people don’t like to think of themselves as teachers.

CORTES: Oh, no, no. More than that, some just oppose it. Well, you get a few people … documentaries, for example, are clearly aware that they are, that they are teaching. People in the news sometimes are aware of that. But, yes, they bridle at the idea; “no, we just report the world”. They use metaphors like “World Window on the World”, but they don’t hold a window up or a mirror … mirror of the world. No, they’re making selections. You watch a news cast, that’s edited. You watch a documentary film, these are edited … choices are made. You watch a movie, scripts are written, actors choose certain things, directors juxtapose stuff and much of it has to do with diversity, and even though, even in the entertainment field, of course, they say “We just entertain, we don’t teach”. Ah, the number of values lessons that come through are just enormous.

HEFFNER: “Values Lessons” …

HEFFNER: … tell me what you mean by that.

CORTES: Well, ways to behave for example. How to think about the issue of diversity. How to, how to … what you should think about people who are different from yourself. In fact we … I use as an example how over time the certain aspects of the media have actually had rules on how to treat diversity. A look at the motion picture production code that was in power in Hollywood for many years, and it had a number of guidelines on what could and could not be shown in terms of presenting issues of diversity. A perfect example … they had a part of the Code said that they could not show … the movies could not show inter-racial love. Now that’s a values lesson. You cannot show it, therefore the values being taught by Hollywood for thirty years is that, that it was wrong to be in love or to have a relationship with someone, certainly to marry someone of a different racial background. Now that’s a values lesson and when it is just repeatedly presented over and over and over for decades and decades and decades.

HEFFNER: Of course, you’re now talking about a Code that hasn’t been in existence for many, many decades …

CORTES: Exactly.

HEFFNER: … though television continues to show the films that were made …

CORTES: … Well, you’re right. It’s interesting because then you … that’s why I say in a sense, the media curriculum since it can be re-shown, you take old movies shown on television, it’s a wonderful example … actually has a longer shelf life than school curriculum, were we get old textbooks … toss them out … they disappear … new ones come in. You get American Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies, re-showing old, old, old movies which have these lessons, but then you have the Code disappear. Say, for example, getting rid of the anti-miscegenation code piece and since then, of course, you have a counter-curriculum. So you have this conflict. You have a whole set of movies which say “No. Inter-racial relationships are wrong”. Now you’ve got a new set that says, “Oh, they could sometimes. Sometimes not”.

HEFFNER: Which leads me to the question of how sympathetic are you with the parents today who are talking about today’s television. Not old movies. Not old movies and their …


HEFFNER: … values, and if you leave the area of racial relationships you find values in the old movies that are frequently embraced by today’s parents …

CORTES: Oh, yeah.
HEFFNER: How sympathetic are you with today’s parents concerns about the values that are being projected by the modern media.

CORTES: Oh … I’m horribly … in fact one of the reasons I wrote the book was I’m concerned with the parents. But my concern is this … is that … and one of the reasons that I wrote the book and tried to make it accessible, and not highfalutin in its academic language. But I wrote it for … my target audience is the intelligent person of any kind of academic or educational background. And the idea is, for the parents to be aware of the kinds of message, values being taught, to intervene in a sense, to be gatekeepers, trying to make some selections. But since you’re limited on that, anybody knows, you leave the room kids can … once they get a hold of the remote, they can change anything. And once they learn to read, you can’t guarantee what they’re going to read or not. But also to be, to be able to intervene and talk with to their kids about the sort of things they’re learning, or when a child brings … even as the child grows up, says things that shows that they have learned from the media to be able to … willing to talk to them about these. Because we can’t censor the media, so therefore the individual reactions take a responsibility as a parent or grandparent to work with young people about what they’re learning, that is one of the reasons I wrote the book.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, it’s a fascinating … such a wonderful title, “The Children Are Watching” … watch out, the children are watching. I remember in my home when I was growing up, it was usually “the kids are listening” …

CORTES: Right. I was a radio …


CORTES: … product of radio generation …

HEFFNER: … well, I, I didn’t mean that … I meant when my parents were talking to each other about things they didn’t want us to hear, they’d switch to another language because “the kids are listening”. Well, “the children are watching”. Now, you talk about parents being able to be gatekeepers …

CORTES: MmmHmm … to a degree.

HEFFNER: And then you say, really you say to a limited degree …

CORTES: Right.

HEFFNER: … you go out of the room and you’re there anyway most of the time.

CORTES: When you teach people to … kids learn to read, you can’t, you can’t monitor everything they read.
HEFFNER: What does that say about your sense of the responsibility of the makers of the informal curricula …


HEFFNER: … the principles of this school that’s teaching and …

CORTES: … this media school.

HEFFNER: The media school.

CORTES: … well, I think, what I hope is that, is that they, they number one … that makers of media will realize and recognize and admit, and this is the toughest thing, as you well know, admit we are teachers, whether we, whether we intend to be or not, we are teachers. So you admit that. Number two, say, if we’re doing it what are our responsibilities to a society in terms of the images we show, the way we frame the issue, the way we write headlines in newspapers, the way we sensationalize or no sensationalize treatment of diversity-related issues. The news stories we choose. To stop and say, “what am I doing in terms of affecting the way people think about living in a diverse society. And once they’ve assumed that responsibility, start making choices, obviously commercialism and other kinds of things are going to have an influence. But at least to say I should be a responsible person and recognize the power of what I’m doing. If we can get that far, we’ve made a step.

HEFFNER: Well, tell me about getting that far. I mean I know that I want, I would like every parent to read “The Children Are Watching” …

CORTES: Well, so would I [laughter] …

HEFFNER: … but I would also like every media person and they’re not, they’re not buying this notion.

CORTES: Well, you know … well, it’s … I wouldn’t go quite that far. You see there are some people and some media makers are actually really quite aware of their, of their teaching … take a Steven Spielberg, as now … he’s very clear about his more recent movies he makes, “I am trying to show America certain kinds of things.”. Others absolutely are not. You’re right. In fact they go so far as to deny being part of this …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I’ve heard, I’ve heard again and again “Hey, I’m not teacher, I’m not a preacher, I’m not a nanny. Don’t heap that responsibility on me. “I’m not a teacher. I’m not a nanny”. That’s ….


HEFFNER: … an interesting combination.


HEFFNER: The two caretakers … they are not.

CORTES: Yeah. And it’s so … they’re … I don’t say they’re into denial because I think, I honestly think as you begin to talk, as I talk to them individually, they’re aware of it. But they’re not going to take … their public stance is “No, we’re not”. And, an therefore, maybe not the nanny, but I think … my whole goal is to sit down with this, and I do workshops for screen writers, etc., and certain media groups. To try and raise their awareness, and say, “Gee, look at it, just be honest. You are teaching. Even though that isn’t the purpose of doing what you’re doing. Be honest with it, and then say ‘what are the ramifications of it’.” If we can just kind of get them over that hurdle of admission … of public admission that they are in the teaching profession, then we’ve got … at least we’ve gone somewhere. Of course, we’re always going to be hemmed in by issues of box office and commercialism. And, but at least, at least be aware that I’m doing this stuff.

HEFFNER: Well, we, we can’t throw that away though, this notion …


HEFFNER: … I mean we can’t just throw it out and then ignore it. The matter of box office. I mean I know from my knowledge of the people …


HEFFNER: … who write and direct and produce films … they’re all pretty decent human beings. They all have a sense, certainly of responsibility for their own family. But they say they’re not teachers to the world, they’re not nannies to the world, and they do have an eye on what it is that sells, because our entertainment media are commercial.


HEFFNER: Now, where do we go? You’ve identified media people as teachers. …

CORTES: Right.

HEFFNER: You’ve identified, for your satisfaction and mine, their responsibility, their power and their … what should be their responsibility. Where do we go when we know that even though one on one they’ll make this concession, they’re not going to do anything about it.

CORTES: Yeah. I think one of things to do, and I try to do this in the book, is to point out examples of where in fact media-makers have used and been successful in doing teaching about diversity through the media, even through entertainment. An example I used … for example Whitney Houston’s recent Cinderella … musical Cinderella which was a multi-racial Cinderella, with a cross-racial love story, which was quite … which would have been unthinkable thirty years earlier. I use, in fact, not in the book, but in follow-up articles I’ve done, Harvey Fierstein’s “The Sissy Duckling”, which showed on HBO, which was a … they take an ugly duckling, but turn him into the sissy duckling and it was sort of an appeal for … it was interesting my grandchildren watched it … they’re seven and eight … and they picked up the fact that you shouldn’t call people names, and you shouldn’t be mean to people because they’re different. But, in fact, the Sissy Duckling is purportedly gay, although it isn’t said so exactly in that. And so it’s Fierstein’s way of saying “Look, gay children are being treated badly”. So he was using … and therefore it’s up to parents and children to, to be more … to be more aware of the pain and the dangers they inflict on gay young people by their actions. So, I think there are … so there are some media-makers who say “I’m taking this bull by the horns and going after it”. And I like to highlight their successes.

HEFFNER: Of course, what you’re talking about is an area where box office considerations, or let’s say economic considerations can work the other way …


HEFFNER: … because you’re talking about diversity, where we have in this country now a larger and larger lobbying group, a great deal more power for those who can lobby for the right thing.

CORTES: Right. Ironically … ironically you get different groups of people of different backgrounds whom may have … lobbying groups that may clash with each other, as you well know. Everyone is not of one mind in terms of diversity, particularly when you get issues of … difference of religion and race. Certainly over the issues of homosexuality and gender relations.

HEFFNER: But there’s a churning.

CORTES: Yeah. And I think that the rise of the number of people, of groups, of all different ideological persuasions and group persuasions that are saying, “Boy, the media are teaching and therefore we want to get into the game. We’d better start putting on some pressure and seeing that our … hope to get our messages through”. I think the media are caught in the middle on this, more and more.

HEFFNER: But, of course, when you’re talking about diversity …
CORTES: Right.

HEFFNER: And you’re talking about color and you’re talking about national origin, and you’re talking about sexual orientation …

CORTES: And religion.

HEFFNER: And religion. There are clear groups. My major concern because it seems to me that you did such a great job in “The Children Are Watching”, in your discussion of how the media teach about diversity …


HEFFNER: And you are dedicated … you have dedicated yourself to pushing this message all around the country. My concern is for the area, let’s say of violence.


HEFFNER: Where we may be equally as much at risk, perhaps more so, where there cannot be any real economic pressure. There aren’t the groups that have their own self-interests. There aren’t the Black or Hispanic or gay groups that can push.

CORTES: MmmHmm. Yeah, no I think you’re right. And by the way this also intersects with the issue, intersects with the issue of diversity because much of the violence that is shown on television or much of the violence that is written about in the newspapers or magazine, or much of the violence that we see in movies or on, certainly on evening newscast, is crossed with violence, so in fact the … so in a sense though you do get some anti violence … demonstration of violence protests, but they come out these different kinds of groups who are saying “We are tried of being portrayed as being constantly violent types of people”. But you’re right, there’s not the anti-violence on the media kind of pressure groups.

HEFFNER: Professor Cortes, let me ask you this question.


HEFFNER: You talk about the media as offering curricula … that’s the alternative school.

CORTES: It is alternative. Sometimes very often unplanned alternative school.

HEFFNER: Okay, even particularly as you say that, I wonder, I wonder about the fact that the formal school …


HEFFNER: … you will insist … you and I and others … as citizens, will insist upon supervision, adequate training, licensing, in fact …

CORTES: Right.

HEFFNER: How far are you, given your concern for the enormous impact of the media … how far are you willing to go in the direction of making sure that there is an approved, let’s not use the word license, but an approved, valid, approved working curriculum for this alternative school?

CORTES: Oh, boy. You get scary on that one. I guess I’m enough of a First Amendment person, that I bridle at that idea.

HEFFNER: Okay, bridle, but you talked about how important this is.

CORTES: Yeah, I know. I, I … listen it’s an ethical dilemma for me and I … it’s, it’s not that I’m … in theory … in theory I would be kind of happy to say, “Look it, here are some guidelines in terms of treatment of diversity that ought to be considered and maybe ought to be done.” I’m worried about implementation here. I can think in my worse, in my worse mind, in my mind … I could pick a group of people who if they were appointed as the czars of implementing that curriculum … and you probably have your list, too. Probably everyone who is listening would have their list and say, “If these were the people actually making the decisions of how to implement that curriculum in, in denying what could be shown and what could not be shown. That would scare me even more than the more laissez faire kind of thing we have going right now. So at this point I guess I’m working at two levels. One is working with the media themselves … and as I say, there are limitations on that, and you well know it, you work with the media. Second of all to work with parental groups, I’ve spent a lot of time working with parents groups and grandparents groups and community groups and working with schools to help teachers then say, “we will include critical thinking about the media as part of the very nature of educating young people, since in fact in the future the way they take in information and process information, make decisions, develop attitudes will be from the media.” So at this point that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you …

CORTES: Five years from now I might be very different on that.

HEFFNER: When … I’ll ask you five years from now.


HEFFNER: When you’ve talked with parents …


HEFFNER: Are they largely willing … I mean the media people say “no one’s in there but us chickens” …

CORTES: Right.

HEFFNER: … we’re not teachers, we’re not preachers, we’re not nannies. Are the parents aware enough of the fact that we have met the enemy and they are … us?

CORTES: No, they’re not … well it’s, it’s sort of split here. In a general sense …yes … all the media … blah, blah, blah. But it’s so awful some things I’ve seen. But then when I, when I do my workshops and I do workshops on diversity in the media and I lots of them for senior citizens groups, or for parental groups and all that, or parent/teacher groups. When it gets down to the specifics of what kids are learning from it, they’re amazed. They, they have … gone from the general “oh, how awful”, to the specific which is, “boy, these are some things these kids are really learning”, because they haven’t stopped to look at the kids and say, “what are they learning”. And the third is “what can I do about it” …

HEFFNER: That’s …

CORTES: … and most of them have not even come to the third, and so when I do these workshops I say, “okay, let’s go to the third stage, what can you actually do” … first of all, how do you look at this and say here are some of the messages that are coming from the media, and here are some of the messages I can actually see my kids learning and second, what can I do about it? And that’s, that’s I guess where my activist role is, and that’s who I wrote the book to be accessible for. For parents and grandparents. I think they’re the, they’re the best hope, you see. It’s funny, because as you know my first chapter is all about my observations of my own grandchildren …


CORTES: And what I find is people who read the book, some of them never get to the second chapter. They stop in the first chapter and want to talk their own … “I didn’t realize”, “well, I just saw my grandchildren do this”, or “my children say this”, and “I never stopped to realize that they were learning that through the media”. I mean I saw their reactions, but I didn’t make the connections. And when that light goes on then I really feel good.

HEFFNER: You know, maybe because I just want to feel that our generation of old fogies have a mission and we better stick around …

HEFFNER: … to carry out that mission. But it does seem to me that when you talk about parents, and I … well I think of this …


HEFFNER: … business of a V-chip on television …


HEFFNER: … and I’m aware of the fact that this is a nation that is increasingly one of absentee parents, of kids who come home so frequently where there are no parents, where the supervision that is required for a use of a V-chip just isn’t there. Parents are out, both of them usually, making a living …

CORTES: Their gatekeeper function is gone when you’re out, sure.

HEFFNER: So that I suspect that your scooting after grandparents, out of your own experience, because you are so close to your grandchildren is a very important one.

CORTES: I think the grandparents could play a tremendous role in this. I’m not going to write parents off. I think parents can also … but, but grandparents really can play a major role here. And you mentioned the V-chip. You see I think there’s a little difference between the violence issue and the diversity issue. Because diversity messages are quite complex, see, and that’s what I showed with the complexity in the book. Violence is, is one I think can be regulated at a little … I mean you could sort of set certain … defined standards are a little bit easier to set in the violence area than they are in the diversity area, where in fact we’ve got huge disagreements over … in fact over issues of diversity in our society, and that’s when you get these conflicts of messages coming out of the media.

HEFFNER: Much more subtle.

CORTES: Oh, very subtle.

HEFFNER: There’s no V-chip that can capture those values.

CORTES: Especially when they’re conflicting values. And, in fact, you talk about cross-pressure groups, you will have … of different diverse groups represent … say they are representing different groups, who disagree with each other, over what kinds of diversity messages ought to be coming through, or images coming through.

HEFFNER: You know when I became chairman of the film rating board years ago, a very distinguished psychologist said to me “Dick, what are you going to be doing in Hollywood?”. And I said well I thought that would be a way of avoiding censorship, if we could do this the right way. And he said he did not think that parents were ever going to get so angry about this that they’d impose, or want to impose censorship, because they want to enjoy the strong stuff themselves. They won’t have it taken off the air.

CORTES: They just don’t want it gone. Yeah. And also one of the interesting things … I think you’re right there, and beyond that one of the things that research shows, and this particularly … not so much with parents, but you know it is with parents … that, that the curriculum kind of ratchets up. You have children’s shows …but what happens is much of many of the decisions made of what is to be watched in the evening are made by parents. And the children are there, and even though those are not made for children, then in fact the children have become the on-lookers, or more so, even the peers, that you get a five year old and a 14 year old siblings, they go into choose what to watch, they’re usually going to choose what the 14 year old wants to watch.

HEFFNER: Which is all the more reason that people should read “The Children Are Watching”, and thank you so much for joining me today.

CORTES: Oh, it’s been a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.