David Gomez sits in the library at one of California’s poorest schools, searching the Internet on a new computer. The donated machine is designed to offer up dazzling content, tailored to the seventh grader’s needs and interests. Unfortunately, that content has nothing to do with his classwork. While David explores the web, a video plays in its own small frame at the left of the screen: A soldier with a huge rifle storms through the woods. It’s an ad for West Point. Twenty seconds later, the cadet is replaced by a video from Kodak that entices: “For a good time click here.” David keeps working — until he’s distracted by a promotion for Xerox. He clicks, and finds himself immersed in a full-screen interactive ad. “Yeah,” says another student, looking over his shoulder. “I clicked that too.”
This 21st-century educational moment was made possible by ZapMe, a corporation that uses commercial sponsorship to help bridge the digital divide in schools like the one David attends in East Oakland.
ZapMe is the digital successor to Channel One, the satellite TV network that broke the taboo of advertising in the classroom a decade ago. Channel One, which is now seen by 40 percent of American teens, lends schools the equipment needed to watch its commercial-sponsored newscasts. Similarly, ZapMe provides schools with computer labs — typically 15 computers with broadband satellite Internet access — free of charge.
But unlike Channel One, where the ads are passive and limited to 2 minutes out of a 12-minute newscast, ZapMe’s advertising is both interactive and continuous. Whether a student is accessing a website or writing a term paper, TV-like ads run in a frame at the lower left of the ZapMe browser. Clicking the frame brings up a full-screen ad window that, in the words of the company’s investor prospectus, allows marketers to “interact with users” and “conduct online surveys, product trials, and online recruiting.”
ZapMe has drawn fire from a coalition of parents, teachers, child-privacy advocates, and even members of Congress who feel the company places a higher value on e-commerce than e-ducation. But the company’s pitch of a “complete technology solution at no cost” has proved attractive to thousands of underfunded schools: ZapMe currently has access to 1.2 million teenagers in more than 1,200 schools across the country, and the company has signed up an additional 4,500 schools it has yet to bring online. ZapMe projects an audience of 10 million teens — 2 million more than Channel One — by the end of next year.
What the company offers schools isn’t trivial: In addition to computer equipment valued at $90,000, ZapMe provides free software and access to more than 13,000 educational sites screened by a full-time staff and augmented by teacher feedback.
But what ZapMe offers its sponsors — the U.S. Armed Forces, Amazon.com, Yahoo, Nintendo, Dell Computer, Britney Spears, Frito-Lay, and Topps baseball cards, to name just a few — is potentially much more valuable. According to American Demographics, teens are a highly coveted market: They not only spend $141 billion per year but they “have yet to develop firm brand loyalties.” ZapMe sells itself to marketers as the “ideal brand development medium.” By registering teens for free e-mail accounts, the company obtains the age, gender, and school zip code of each student on the network. Using this information, ZapMe can then “microtarget” ads to each sponsor’s desired audience.
Beyond simple brand impressions, ZapMe provides advertisers “up-to-the-minute data on theÉeffectiveness of the brand messages delivered” — essentially turning students into focus groups. ZapMe also drives customers to e-tailers who accept, in lieu of cash, the ZapPoints students earn for frequent surfing.
Rick Inatome, chief executive of ZapMe, says he’s “absolutely ecstatic” with the company’s growth. Others are decidedly less enthusiastic. Last January, 27 child advocates — ranging from conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly to media critic Mark Crispin Miller — sent a letter to all 50 governors that pillories the ZapMe model. The company exploits schools to gain access to “a captive audience of children,” the letter says, turning students into “guinea pigs for advertising and marketing firms” and transforming schools and teachers into “instruments of corporate marketing.”
Inatome deflects criticism of “media taking advantage of anybody” as simply outdated, adding that most kids are savvy enough to “filter out” the distraction of the ads.
Joyce Foster, who administers the ZapMe lab at David Gomez’s school in Oakland, is not so sure. Even kids who “know what they’re looking for” will click the ad window, Foster says. “That does grab their attention.”
One ad that has recently captivated her students urges them to “Look at the Pretty Dinosaur.” What follows the click is a video for WarPath: Jurassic Park — a Sony Play Station game in which large-fanged dinos fight to the (graphically bloody) death.
Inatome — who joined the company only a few months ago — maintains that he is working to redefine “a lot of the original concepts in which there was a pure marketing play.” The next generation of the network, he promises, will be “more like public TV,” offering “educationally appropriate sponsorship” akin to that seen on “Sesame Street.” As an example, he describes a Doritos ad that leverages the chips’ trademark crunch to provide a “very important lesson about decibels.”
To many critics, “educationally appropriate” advertising is an oxymoron. “The aim of propaganda and the purpose of education are diametrically opposed,” says Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University. “Propaganda, whether it is commercial or political, does not belong in any classroom — any worthwhile classroom.”
Vicki Rafel, vice president for legislation for the National PTA, agrees. “Schooltime should be devoted to instruction and studying,” she says. “Children should be protected from advertising while they’re studying.”
Rafel and the PTA are supporting the Student Privacy Protection Act, a measure proposed by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), which would require schools to obtain parental consent before allowing companies to collect marketing data on their children. “With all due respect to these companies,” Miller says, “the goal here isn’t the education of the children. The goal here is the acquisition of information about these children. First and foremost that’s why they’re there.”
Miller maintains that corporate inroads into education could be halted if Americans were committed to adequately funding schools. “Our unwillingness to make that kind of investment,” he says, “shouldn’t turn our children into little objects of commercial acquisition or advertising — little marketing targets.” — Tim Dickinson
Shape Policy, Profit Privately
Some people make government policy. Some cash in on it. Bill White does both.
As deputy energy secretary under President Clinton, White was a key player in establishing energy policy in the Caspian Sea region — an area experiencing what the Washington Post calls the “last great oil rush of the 20th century.” He traveled to the area several times and worked to improve relations with the leaders of Georgia and Azerbaijan, convincing the two countries to oppose a Russian plan that would give Moscow control of the region’s pipelines. White favored a plan calling for construction of a pipeline between Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and Ceyhan, Turkey — a plan that was ultimately accepted by Caspian leaders.
Upon resigning in 1995, White founded Frontera Resources, an international energy company that develops oil and gas projects in what it calls “emerging marketplaces where reserves once inaccessible due to political or economic constraints are opening to Western companies.” The new company made a beeline for the Caspian. In 1997, Frontera became the first American company to invest in oil and gas rights in Georgia when it closed an agreement to work five oil fields — on land that sits squarely astride the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. In Azerbaijan, the company established a subsidiary involved in extensive oil and gas exploration, secured an offshore concession, and signed a deal with the state oil company to share production of two giant oil fields.
White has also kept a strong foothold back in Washington. His board at Frontera boasts the likes of former CIA Director John Deutch and ex-Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. White was a major fundraiser for Clinton before joining the administration and since leaving government has given at least $18,000 to the Democratic Party and its candidates.
White has continued to curry favor with Caspian leaders — most notably Heydar Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan. A former Communist Party hack so venal that he was actually booted from the Soviet Politburo, Aliyev sports a record Human Rights Watch dubs “dismal.” According to the group, his government tortures prisoners, detains journalists, and suppresses opposition parties.
Despite such abuses, White and his company portray Aliyev as a bold reformer. “There’s been a wonderful wave of democratic practices in Azerbaijan and Georgia,” says Steve Nicandros, chief executive of Frontera. “They’ve had to come out from under the umbrella of Soviet rule.” In 1997, White wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle praising Aliyev for transforming Azerbaijan from “an obscure war zone to a booming U.S. partner.” Furthermore, White added, “cooperation between his country and ours will have an impact on tens of thousands of jobs in Texas.” White neglected to mention that it would also have an impact on his own wallet.
Frontera has paid for a P.R. film calling for an end to a U.S. ban on aid to Azerbaijan for its continued blockade of neighboring Armenia. In January, the Azerbaijan Society of America showed the film during a “luncheon briefing” for congressional staffers. The following month, Aliyev met personally with President Clinton. The Azeri leader renewed his support for the pipeline; the White House repeated its call for lifting the ban.
White has gone even further than his former boss in supporting Aliyev. During a meeting with the Azeri president in Baku a few months ago, White said that he disapproved of Clinton’s suggestion to name the American-backed pipeline the Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline. No, White said, it should instead be called the Aliyev Pipeline. Leaders of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, observed an opposition newspaper, must have been disappointed that they didn’t think of the name first. — Ken Silverstein
Ear Hustling on Oakland Slang
When Mark Frey started teaching public speaking at a community college in Oakland, California, five years ago, he found he had a thing or two to learn himself. “My students would come up to me and say these strange things, like, ‘I couldn’t turn in my homework because I was shot to the curb,'” Frey says.
A brief inquiry revealed that “shot to the curb” can mean anything from hung over to down-and-out. Frey, who has a master’s in speech, took an interest and began posting a list of his students’ expressions with their definitions to his website, voxcommunications .com. Now a computer science teacher at an Oakland high school, Frey has compiled hundreds of entries, and rounded out the site with sound files and photos of his students.
“A lot of it reflects the grim reality of urban life,” Frey says. Some expressions, like ghetto birds (surveillance helicopters), glass dick (crack pipe), and ear hustling (eavesdropping), have clear derivations. Others — facheezie on the reezie (definitely true) or poonani (vagina) — suggest a true dialect, says Frey, one that has developed in geographic and economic isolation from Standard American English.
Long before the fracas over Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English, erupted in Oakland three years ago, Frey had been incorporating his students’ expressions into his lessons. He still finds that by communicating to his students — who affectionately refer to him as Frey-dawg — in their own words, he can win their trust and better instruct them.
Frey doesn’t consider his site to be a political statement. “It’s a dialect and teachers need to understand it,” he says. “If teachers don’t understand the linguistic style, they’re at a disadvantage. If you’re going to go to Japan for a couple years, you want to learn some Japanese.” — Jenn Shreve
Given that U.S. industry spews 1.3 billion pounds of toxins into the air each year, you’d think officials would be eager for any information that might help Americans breathe easier. But as Keith Henderson is learning, accuracy is not always welcome when it comes to industrial pollution.
Henderson, a chemical engineer from Louisiana, has developed a new method to calculate much of the 300 million pounds of fugitive emissions — inadvertent leaks of gas from vents and seals — released each year at industrial sites. Initial applications of his method, which he calls EquiVap, have shown it to be far more accurate at gauging leaks from petrochemical storage tanks than the current standard, developed in 1926.
EquiVap measurements indicate that the existing method, known as Reid Vapor Pressure, may understate certain storage tank emissions by as much as 1,000 percent. That means that tons of emissions — including carcinogens and ozone-forming chemicals — are being ignored. “Storage tanks are undoubtedly the largest source of undetected emissions that industry is putting out,” Henderson says.
Yet the response to EquiVap from many state and federal environmental officials, as well as the petrochemical industry, has been less than enthusiastic. If Henderson’s method were employed in areas with ozone problems, for example, the cost to industry to mitigate the extra emissions could run well into the millions.
“I think they’re really scared of this,” says Alex Sagady, a Michigan-based environmental consultant who has reviewed Henderson’s findings. “There are a hell of a lot of those tanks out there.”
In Houston, which recently surpassed Los Angeles as the nation’s smoggiest city and is under a federal mandate to dramatically reduce ozone levels, more accurate emissions estimates might scuttle the plan to clean up the city’s air now being considered by the EPA. “It has huge implications, because it means the numbers they’re using are completely bogus,” says Neil Carman, a Sierra Club leader in Austin who sits on a federal panel addressing environmental issues in the petrochemical industry.
Against that backdrop, EquiVap may strike regulators as a giant headache rather than a helpful tool. The antiquated Reid Vapor Pressure measure is actually written into Texas environmental regulations as the required method for estimating storage tank emissions. The EPA has insisted on further testing, although the agency acknowledges it has found no reason to dispute EquiVap’s accuracy. “We don’t have any problems with it necessarily,” says David Misenheimer, leader of the agency’s Emission Factor and Inventory Group. “We needed more information.”
The petrochemical industry, which has good reason to poke holes in EquiVap, has not challenged it on scientific grounds. “I don’t think we had any question about the technology being sound,” says Karen Madro, a manager with the exploration and production subsidiary of Shell Oil. “Our feeling is that fugitive emissions were something that we would deal with down the road.”
At least one federal agency has been less skittish about EquiVap: The U.S. Department of Energy used it to help calculate emissions from the 575 million barrels of crude in its Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Others think the EPA should follow suit instead of continuing to rely on Reid. “Can you imagine NASA using 1926 methods to put up the space shuttle?” asks the Sierra Club’s Carman.
For his part, Henderson is suing the EPA in federal court to force it to employ EquiVap as its standard. “It’s a whole new battlefront,” he says. “They won’t change till something like a two-by-four comes their way.” — Bob Burtman
When Ronnie Hayes turned up at home with cuts and bruises on his face, having confessed to what a youth counselor called a “whole slew of crimes,” his mother immediately called Kate Walz of First Defense Legal Aid. Apprehended by Chicago police near his home, 15-year-old Ronnie had refused to answer questions concerning a rash of break-ins — and was taken, handcuffed, into the back of a squad car with one officer while two others turned their backs. The officers had been “real cool,” the battered Ronnie assured his mother, and had even taken him to McDonald’s, after he “helped them solve some crimes.”
Walz, executive director of First Defense, later testified as a witness to the boy’s injuries — prompting a judge to reject Ronnie’s “spontaneous” confession as inadmissible. “My son had no proof or protection except for Kate,” Ronnie’s mother says.
Walz graduated from DePaul Law School four years ago intent on using her degree for social change and now spearheads a group working to curb police abuses. First Defense formed in 1994 in response to a study by the American Bar Association that found suspects in Illinois — as in most states — can be questioned by police for up to 72 hours before they are assigned a public defender. To monitor interrogations, First Defense sends lawyers to police stations to provide suspects with pro bono legal defense before they are brought to court, charged with a crime, and provided an attorney.
“When we see them,” says Walz, “the main thing we want to impress upon them is their right to remain silent. There are too many false confessions,” she adds, “especially with children, who will fall for the good cop-bad cop charade or try to talk their way out of things just to go home.”
First Defense’s 60 on-call attorneys respond to some 1,800 requests for aid each year. To protect those First Defense can’t reach, Walz has also pushed for proposed legislation that would mandate the videotaping of police interrogations. Currently, police tape only confessions — despite the 1993 revelation that a Chicago lieutenant had tortured a man into confessing to the murders of two policemen. (His abusive tactics have also cast doubt on the confessions of 10 others on death row.)
“They are only taping the final product,” says Walz. “We find this ridiculous. If everything is aboveboard, why not record the whole process?” Bob Podgorny, vice president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, claims taped interrogations aren’t necessary. When a suspect makes a confession on camera, he says, “the world can see if his nose is busted.”
University of Chicago law professor Randolph Stone lauds Walz’s work. “Her leadership has helped fill the critical need indigents and juveniles have for counsel before they see a judge,” he says. “The integrity of the criminal justice system is at stake when only the prosecutorial and policing bodies decide what rights people have while in custody.”
Chicago police don’t share that view. In 1995, the police union withdrew its annual contributions to the United Way, in an unsuccessful attempt to pressure the group to stop funding First Defense.
Opposition from police makes it challenging for First Defense to even meet with clients at the station. “They use every excuse in the book,” says Walz, “claiming the client doesn’t want to see us, is eating, sleeping, being processed … you name it.” Walz hopes police will eventually stop viewing her group as an enemy, and instead see it as a preventative presence — capable of saving the city millions in settlements and court costs stemming from charges of police abuse. “When we act as attorney witnesses in-house,” Walz says, “we help protect everyone involved — even police officers.” — Deirdre Guthrie