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by James P. Steyer
Atria Books, 2002
Review by Fred Ashmore on Jul 12th 2004

The Other Parent

Maybe it wasn't perfect to assign this book to a Brit for review.  James Steyer's book is so centred on US Media that any European is tempted to say, "Fine, you sold the family silver and have only plastic to eat off."  But I think this book holds  a important wider message for anyone, and gives excellent advice for parents.

Steyer's concerns are about the way that media pervades the life of children and teens, its influence on our young ones and the way that those in charge of media content have lost -- largely -- accountability, responsibility and a sense of duty to the people they serve.  He demonstrates the nature of modern media in the US. explains how it affects the young and traces the development of the industry that has allowed ownership to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few conglomerates.  He describes the pernicious effects of free market thinking, weak regulators and a political system in which money rules.  It sounds scary! but fear not, the BBC is at hand ....

Which said, the attitude that "if you can sell it, you can make it" is certainly present in the UK.  I was talking to some colleagues the other day and the subject of snuff movies came up.  Out of the people present three thought it was OK to sell a video that apparently shows a real woman being killed during sex (as a way of adding intensity and excitement for the man).  The fourth was me, and I got some friendly ribbing for being a soft hearted soft headed liberal with incoherent attitudes to censorship.  There was a case here not so long ago of a girl who was murdered by a person with a passion for such films.  Her mother has started an association to promote more responsible approach to film making, though I wouldn't bet that it will have much effect in the short term.

Steyer has wise advice for parents.  As with all aspects of raising children, the key point is to know what media they are using, not necessarily so as to stop it but so you can guide offspring if you don't like what they're using.  Or, stop it if you judge best.  Close control may not be essential, but awareness, participation and guidance are.  The afterword by Chelsea Clinton shows a model that is worth following.  And if two fairly busy politicians can manage to stay in touch with what their daughter watches and reads, I think it must be possible for any parent.

There is much about the American media scene that will pass by readers from other countries, but some of produces resonances.  The remorseless expansion of News Corp affects the UK Media scene powerfully.  Its style and values are reflected in the loss to serious readers of the London Times, once a journal of standing and huge reputation but now just another dray horse in Murdoch's stable of nags.

Steyer provides a large number of recommendations for parents on how to improve the standard of what a child views.  I liked his recommendations a lot.  "Establish good habits early" "No TV in child's room," "Set a media diet and stick to it," "Take an interest."  Harsh? Directive?  Maybe, but such good sense!

Steyer has some hard things to say about the politics and ethics of American media managers and in particular about the primacy of bottom line over quality issues.  I have insufficient information to judge the accuracy of some of his accusations, but they sound highly credible and he cites sources.  The old question arises; should a person's business and professional life follow personal ethics?  This is an easy one in the classroom, harder when taking decisions in real life.  And why is it hard?  Maybe because of the way in which much of the media drenches us with manipulative messages intended to promote the interests of advertisers and others.

The other facet of this good book that interest me a lot was the picture of how politicians in the US have become corrupted by media interests.  Given the influence of media on political issues and acceptance, it is hardly surprising that politicians want the media to be on their side.  But Steyer shows a picture that looks pretty black.  I hadn't felt before that this is something that concerns all of us.  Given the importance of the US and its politics to all of us, I'm beginning to wonder! 

So, who's this book for?  Parents, obviously -- well worth reading. People working in the media might find it challenging.  Anyone interested in politics and regulatory control.  America watchers.  A good book, interesting, carefully written and polemical but none the worse for a lot of sincere passion about an important subject.



© 2004 Fred Ashmore


Fred Ashmore is a member of the public with a strong interest in drugs, drink and addiction and how people recover from them. He is active as a meeting host for the SMART Recovery® program, which offers help for people who seek to modify harmful and addictive behavior.