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About Utah: Common Sense wants to point out good media

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 3:32 p.m. MDT

James Steyer of Common Sense Media listens during a discussion of the documentary James Steyer of Common Sense Media listens during a discussion of the documentary "Miss Representation." (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

PARK CITY— Your first thought when you see Jim Steyer at the Sundance Film Festival is: What's a guy like him doing in a place like this?

Then you think about it and your second thought is: No, really, what's a guy like him doing in a place like this?

Jim is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the California-based, nationally acclaimed media watchdog that advocates content monitoring to protect families and children.

The kind of content Common Sense Media routinely monitors is currently playing at a Sundance venue near you.

Sundance has been called a lot of things over the years, but "family friendly" isn't one of them.

Isn't this like Sarah Palin showing up at a PETA convention?

President and Chief Executive Officer of The Paley Center for Media Pat Mitchell speaks at a panel discussion for the documentary film Miss Representation, along with James Steyer of Common Sense Media at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on  Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) President and Chief Executive Officer of The Paley Center for Media Pat Mitchell speaks at a panel discussion for the documentary film Miss Representation, along with James Steyer of Common Sense Media at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

But Steyer kicks back in his chair, clears his throat, and explains himself.

James Steyer of Common Sense Media listens during a discussion of the documentary James Steyer of Common Sense Media listens during a discussion of the documentary "Miss Representation." (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

He's here because he has something good to say about Sundance.

Specifically, he has something good to say about the documentary "Miss Representation," which had its world premiere Saturday at the Yarrow Theatre.

The film confronts the issue of how the media routinely and regularly shortchanges women with shallow stereotyping, casting them in roles that reduce their value and perpetuate false and unfair images.

Making the case in the documentary are such luminaries as Katie Couric, Geena Davis, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rice and Gloria Steinhem — women whose names alone contradict the media's prevalent one-dimensional emphasis on looks, youth and thinness.

Nothing gets Jim Steyer up in the morning like a good cause against bad misrepresentation.

"Nobody's done anything like this since Jean Kilbourne way back in the 1970s with 'Killing Us Softly,'" says Steyer, referencing feminist Kilbourne's groundbreaking and award-winning documentary in 1979 that attacked advertising's harmful and misleading images of women.

"I came to Sundance," he continues, "because Jen called up and said, 'We're a huge fan of Common Sense, how much do you look at the impact of media on girls?' And I said we look at it a lot and a lot of it is negative and really inappropriate. They emphasize appearance over all else."

"Jen," is actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the director, writer and producer of "Miss Representation." She is married to Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor and now lieutenant governor of California — and a longtime friend of Steyer.

Both Gavin Newsom and Steyer participated in a panel discussion following the airing of "Miss Representation," where they enthusiastically seconded the film's message.

"We're not anti-media," cautions Steyer. "we point you to the good stuff."

By "we" he means Common Sense Media, the organization he launched in 2003 that is dedicated, as its mission statement declares, to "improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology."

"We're like the nutritional labeling of media," Steyer explains. "Where there's behavior bad for kids and families, we call it out."

He cautions that doesn't mean Common Sense Media advocates that films featuring such bad behavior be picketed or banned — any more than Twinkies and Ding Dongs should be banned from the supermarket.

"We're not about right and wrong, we're not preaching, we're educating," he explains. "We basically give you the information and then let you decide.

"Our core motto is sanity, not censorship."

The irony that he is walking among a vast sea of Sundance filmmakers who produce the kind of content Common Sense Media — not to mention "Miss Representation" — would not heartily recommend is not lost on Steyer.

"But everybody's been really nice to me," he says. "They know me. They know we're fair. They know we're the biggest kids group in the country and we stand up for kids.

"And you know what?" he says in summation, "Most of them are parents too."

e-mail: benson@desnews.com.

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