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Review by Caitlin Burke

Buy the book

Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits, and Blockheads Like William Bennett, by Jon Katz
Random House, Inc.

Meditate on Jon Katz's Media Mantra.

In Virtuous Reality, Jon Katz describes the strategies and values of various media and urges people, especially parents, to embrace new media as an opportunity to use and value critical thinking skills. His targets are the "objective" traditional news media and the flowering of groups that advocate censorship, from slavish followers of William Bennett to "twitchy Boomer parents." But all is not lost. Katz identifies traditional media as organizations with trained professionals who still have a great deal of fact-gathering and analysis to offer, and he urges traditional media to play to these strengths while shaking off the bonds of "objective" reporting. And he identifies parents as competent individuals that can best protect their children by being aware of and involved in their kids' activities and interactions with media.

Jon Katz has worked in many news and information media through his career, including TV news production and journalism in newspapers and magazines. He's seen a lot of models, and he's watched the traditional media consistently lose audience to emerging media, from VCRs and cable news to the Internet. Virtuous Reality treats themes Katz has treated in his regular Media Rant columns at HotWired's Netizen. Tracing his views back to Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, Katz calls attention to the relatively modern construct of "objectivity" in news, created by 19th century newspaper barons for marketing reasons (although Katz later says that "just economics" has no ideology. Hmm).

Dismissed by people who support censorship and rude and puerile, Katz's book revels in the aggressive tone and courage of conviction familiar to any Usenet veteran. Blasting old media as patronizing and insulting, and sneering at the Victorian rhetoric of "protection of delicate sensibilities" that's still directed toward children, Katz still makes time for plenty of content. He lucidly summarizes the distortions of a news media that needs lurid stories to pull in readers but is still so beholden to its traditional power bases that it can't answer the hard questions it begs.

The centerpiece of Katz's argument is competence, and that, of course, is the main sticking point. Katz argues that children are competent to handle the mediated images they come in contact with (particularly when supportive parents and teachers are willing to talk openly about controversial or disturbing ideas and images). He also argues that parents are competent to work with their children to develop this level of understanding. And for all his indictments of traditional media, he argues that it is peopled with competent and trained fact-gatherers and analysts with a tremendous amount to contribute to the news by contextualizing it and suggesting interpretations.

Katz wants to see all these groups enjoy the different strengths of a variety of media, developing the skills to select what is useful to them. It's a familiar argument in favor of an educated populace and ultimately a participatory democracy. Which is pretty radical when you think about it. Katz argues that not only is this a good thing, but the Net, properly protected from censorship, can help usher in a new level of participation by offering both the media tools to make information exciting and accessible and the technical support to make it possible. Cokie Roberts's nightmare is coming true, and the medium that will bring it to you is the World Wide Web.

Virtuous Reality should be enjoyed by people who love the Net and given to people who are afraid of it. It is a clarion call for good parenting and for valuing critical thinking skills that demonstrates the best reasons -- practical and idealistic -- for welcoming the Net, among other media. Read this book. And then give a copy to the next person who says, "Don't you think that rap and sleazy talk shows and Beavis & Butt-head are disgusting? I don't want my kids anywhere near that garbage. No wonder there's so much violence!"

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