Thursday, July 14, 2005 | It is time for Americans to learn how to read media.

“Reading Media” certainly means reading newspapers, magazines and books – and now Web sites – and watching television and movies, and listening to radio.

But “Reading Media” also means understanding a second level of whatever you are looking at or listening to that is always there. At that level are the reasons that someone decided to write the story, or the sitcom, or the movie, or the book, or the commercial.

Those reasons are all about you. Media professionals can “read” you like a book. They know what pushes your buttons, what pulls your triggers. They go to journalism and media schools to learn how to read you, using a system of tools and definitions that I call a Toolbox.

Unfortunately, the Toolbox isn’t part of regular education in the United States. If it was, the general public would understand why news is news. People would understand the difference between news and entertainment (a difference that many media pros are working very hard to blur these days). And they would understand the reactions they have to things they see in media, and that understanding is very important. In everything from beer commercials to political programming, the media uses the Toolbox to manipulate people, to create feelings that lead to choices.

People know they are feeling something when they see this content: happiness, anger, satisfaction, disgust, agreement, disagreement, connection, alienation. But they may not understand the feeling, where it comes from. Seinfeld mugs an old lady just to get a loaf of rye bread, and people laugh and laugh.

Why do people laugh at a mugging? The answer is in the Toolbox. When people use the Toolbox to read media, they become more informed consumers, whether the product is news, entertainment or persuasion. Informed consumers have the best chance to make choices they will feel good about. When the media starts to realize that the consumers know what is going on, it will move the media-public relationship toward a more honest balance.

I have taught a college-level survey course about this media-public relationship for several years. Now I am developing this Web-based project, “Reading Media,” with a presentation of the history of media (it goes way back before the creation of media itself), the Toolbox (you’ll be surprised where the tools come from), how the tools work, and an ongoing Toolbox analysis of media content – the famous Paris Hilton car-wash commercial, for instance.

Paris Hilton, incidentally, knows the Toolbox as well as anybody in media. So does Madonna. So does Karl Rove. So does Howard Stern. So do the people at the companies who create the commercials. So does everyone at The New York Times, NBC, CBS, ABC and, yes, Dan Rather.

And so should you. That is the mission of Reading Media.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at

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