‘Media Buy the People’ – The Media Literacy Legacy of Bob McCannon

September 22nd, 2013 · 2 Comments · Education, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Media reform is key, no matter what your issue.
– Bob McCannon, New Mexico Media Literacy Project

Recently, the Albuquerque Journal announced the death of Robert L. “Bob” McCannon, retired Albuquerque Academy teacher and coach who founded the New Mexico Media Literacy Project.

McCannon’s legacy is his creation of a whole course in “media education,” which he taught for 30 years.

The New Mexico Media Literacy Project “aimed to incorporate media into learning before such a concept became standard,” wrote Journal staff writer Elaine Tassy in McCannon’s obituary  Sept. 13.  Starting with nothing other than some office space at the Academy, McCannon raised more than $1 million in grants by the time he left the project in 2005, according to the story. “When he retired, (the Literacy Project) had eight employees . . . and $800,000 in cash reserves,” McCannon’s son Brandon told Tassy.

Quoting the project’s current executive director, Andrea Quijada, the story continued:

“Bob devoted his time, energy and passion to the project, where he provided media literacy trainings to hundreds of youth and adults each year. . .Bob was deeply passionate about the impact media have on culture, civic participation, and democracy.”

McCannon also wrote numerous textbooks, videos and DVDs, including the third edition of “Children, Adolescents and Media,” a college textbook.

In his honor, it seems appropriate to use this blog to share some of McCannon’s quotes and observations made during a free lecture he gave in Albuquerque in April 2011. He called the lecture “Media Buy the People.”

On Citizens United

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, its 1978 decision in First National Bank of Boston vs. Berlatti opened the doors to corporations enjoying a semblance of “personhood.”

“William Rehnquist wrote the dissent,” McCannon said, “which said, if we start giving political speech rights to corporations, we’re screwed, because they have wealth, limited liability and eternal life. Now, (after Citizens United), we’re all equal to General Electric, Exxon and 60 percent of the corporations in this country who pay no taxes to the IRS. Not only that, they get refunds.”

McCannon then showed a news clip, commenting wryly that “Brian Williams neglected to mention” that NBC is owned by GE.

On Violence in the Media

Media is addictive, providing excitement. Continuous violence in the media “stimulates approval of war.”

McCannon said he held no doubt that bullying is connected to violence in the media. Research – “well-done and replicated” – has shown that when you get parents of elementary-age children “to adopt a different media diet to one that is less violent,” the result is fewer violent incidents reported at school, school attendance goes up, attention problems go down and children have better grades.

On the Media Dumbing Down

“The reading level of the average American ad today is below 7th grade. Eighty-seven percent (of American adults) cannot read a newspaper editorial and understand it. Thirteen percent can read, heaven forbid, Albuquerque Journal editorials.”

Tools of Persuasion

Dozens of the tools of persuasion are found in Marc Antony’s funeral speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Advertising uses them well.

The number one tool is symbolism, used in a way to which we become accustomed – family, home, nation, lifestyle.  Also important: All media messages are constructed so that the techniques themselves become familiar.

McCannon played as an example the YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars,” a country-rocking tune Canadian Dave Carroll wrote and put online in frustration after United Airlines denied his claim that baggage handlers had broken his valuable Taylor guitar. Carroll’s video, McCannon said, effectively employs humor and familiar techniques to get its unusual message across.

(As an aside, according to Carroll’s website,  “United Breaks Guitars” has reached more than 150 million people, and was named one of the five most important videos in Google’s History.)

“This kind of advertising was invented in the 1930s by Herman Goebbels,” McCannon said, later adding that Leni Riefenstahl’s critically acclaimed “Olympia” was another landmark in modern advertising, glorifying the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. Riefenstahl, who had previously made Adolph Hitler something of a deity in “Triumph of the Will,” invented “emotional transfer.”


“Only if a story is repeated again and again will it permeate the American consciousness. It took 30 years of news stories to institutionalize the dangers of smoking.”

The Reptilian Brain

The oldest part of the brain – the part cavemen needed to survive when confronted with the saber tooth tiger – remains with us after thousands of years, even though we have developed the ability to apply rules and logic. “Even basketball involves the cerebral cortex — because it involves rules.”

But, “When we spend ourselves into the poor house, and go to war, that’s the reptilian brain” at work.

“For the most important questions, are there knee-jerk answers? No, there are more questions.”

Uniquely American Ads

A McDonald’s ad that makes a hamburger look huge because it’s placed in a boy’s small hand would be illegal in “Quebec, Norway and other intelligent democracies that outlaw marketing to kids under 10.”

In America, a cute dog jumping to catch a Bud Light is “targeting the next generation.” If you don’t make kids brand-loyal by 12, you lose the war, because they’re brand-loyal by 13.” Budweiser used cartoons right up until Joe Camel was outlawed as a symbol for cigarettes. After the ban, Bud started using “doggies.”

On Advertising’s Health Claims

“If you put milk next to a Big Mac, people assume it’s healthy.”

One of the longest running commercials in history touted Captain Crunch as “part of a nutritious breakfast,” placing the sugary cereal next to milk and orange juice. “Think about it. If you put nuclear waste in the bowl, it would still be part of a nutritious breakfast.”

Bob’s Wish List

“I don’t see any reason a human being should own more than one radio or TV station.” Clear Channel wouldn’t play music by the Dixie Chicks, and it affected 1,400 radio stations.

“I don’t think anyone should own more than one newspaper.”

“Our Founding Fathers were tremendously aware how important diversity of media sources is. They gave subsidies to dozens of broadsheets so there would be diversity.”

“Corporate control is the real bogeyman here.”

The Media Literacy Project

McCannon’s work lives on, evidenced by a post that appeared on New Mexico Mercury the same week McCannon’s obituary ran in the Journal.

In it, the still vibrant Media Literacy Project wrote that every month it will deconstruct an advertisement “to encourage discussion of the messages in the ad and to inspire others to do the same with the ads they see.” From the post:

At Media Literacy Project in Albuquerque, we believe that media should strengthen our communities, broaden our understanding of the world around us, and deepen our connections with each other. That is why we teach everyday people how to deconstruct media – so that we can all analyze and understand how media images, representations, and marketing influence our lives.

September’s multi-media production deconstructs the messages behind advertising for the highly caffeinated drink Red Bull, which is immensely popular with young adults. Visit the link for a video of the ad and New Mexico Literacy Project’s essay debunking the ad’s claim that the drink is good for aspiring athletes, even though, as the essay says:

. . .little, if any, evidence exists that these drinks improve performance, and they can be unsafe.

The Media Project welcomes comments on its work.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Cres G

    Bob McCannon did wonderful and extremely important things for literacy education. I hope that his legacy will continue to flourish.

    A reminder:

    “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

  • Todd Epstein

    Bob was my history teacher and football coach way before he was famous in New Mexico, 1970-74. He was a great teacher and person. News of his death saddens me greatly. His daily quirky e-mails were very funny. RIP Mr. McCannon.

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