Profile: Media Education Foundation

Brian Cook

Sut Jhally believes the left faces two basic tasks: “The first is to understand and analyze the world better than anyone else,” Jhally says, noting the influence of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. “And the second—and this is what the left has so often failed to do—is to translate that work to the world at large.”

Few have accomplished both tasks with greater success than Jhally, a documentary filmmaker and communications professor at the University of Massachusetts. Jhally’s first film, Dreamworlds (1991), a critical annihilation of the sexist and misogynist fantasyland of rock videos, garnered national attention when MTV sent the filmmaker a “cease and desist” order after he had distributed 100 copies to fellow educators. Jhally refused on the grounds of freedom of speech, and the subsequent negative publicity caused MTV to reconsider litigation. The film has since been viewed by 3 million students.

Dreamworlds’ impact led Jhally to create the Media Education Foundation as a means to produce more films that engage a familiar mass media landscape by examining its underlying assumptions about race, gender, sexuality and unfettered consumerism. In little more than a decade, MEF has become one of the largest producers of educational films and DVDs, with nearly 50 titles ranging from in-depth examinations of advertising’s image of women to taped lectures of marginalized scholars like Hall, George Gerbner and the late Edward Said.

Much of MEF’s success comes from distributing its own films, which allows the organization to bypass a middleman and funnel those profits into future productions. But Jhally gives more credit to the simple fact that “we are producing films about issues that people desperately want to talk about.” Equally vital is marketing the films to forums where open debate still occurs. As Jhally notes, with civic space largely withered, “one of the few places where intellectual discussion is still allowed to take place is in the universities.”

Still, MEF is seeking to expand to markets outside academia, such as independent movie houses, community centers and women’s groups. “Marketing is a dirty word on the left, but to us, it’s politics,” Jhally explains. “If you’re creating work that nobody sees, it’s no longer politics. It’s art.”

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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