If a Tree Falls - A Media Literacy Lesson in the Power of Omission: The Unfinished Business of Agent Orange in Vietnam and US "Mediamnesia"

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The presentation, with visuals, is based on a course conducted in the spring of 2012 involving research on US media coverage of the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam and a trip to Vietnam with US college and high school students to examine those effects firsthand.

Conceptually, the purpose of the course was to deepen understanding of the role of omission in shaping common wisdom, or common ignorance. It is standard practice in media literacy education to pose a media clip in front of a class and ask for deconstruction of the messages embedded in that media sample. But what if the media sample is thin air, a void, an absence? How is our learning shaped by what doesn't appear before us? Or, as one of my students put it, "Our country committed one of the worse war crimes of the last century. How can nobody know about it?"

The absence of information in the mainstream media (and very little in alternative media) presents a special challenge for those teaching media literacy. It is not hard to list numerous other omissions from popular media, such as other US exploits abroad, or the development of mass incarceration during the decades that prison populations exploded.

There are no easy solutions to this challenge, but I argue that grappling with the challenge is critical to interrogating the hegemonic worldview of neoliberalism and fostering critical consumers of media.

The case of the ongoing effects of Agent Orange, both for US vets and for Vietnamese, is one startling example of what I refer to as "mediamnesia" - intentional forgetting driven by both commercial and ideological factors that frame news coverage in the mainstream media. There are plenty of other examples, and I would hope that a discussion with participants in this session would generate both case studies and ideas for how to incorporate the notion of omission into critical media literacy pedagogy.