Selling Coal to Kids

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It’s not likely that a book called Harry Potter and the Mountaintop Removal Project would have much appeal to middle-schoolers. And have fun trying to get the pre-K crowd interested in Clifford the Big Red Strip-Mine Operator. The good news is you’re never likely to see such literary nasties. The bad news is that Scholastic, the publisher responsible for both Harry and Clifford and thousands of other extraordinary books, does seem to have gotten surprisingly friendly with the coal industry of late — and it’s kids who could wind up paying the price.

Scholastic is a hard company not to love. Founded in 1920, it’s a multinational publishing empire today, marketing books, magazines, wall posters, tech products and even TV programming and movies to schools and children around the world. Parents and teachers swear by Scholastic, and generations of kids have grown up happily on the stuff it sells. Still, the company has taken heat in recent years, mostly for allowing too much product placement and non-educational swag to slip into its inventory.  A Cheerios counting book for pre-schoolers creeps up to the line — except for the fact that toddlers, as a rule, love Cheerios and, well, the book does teach them to count. That same line is more clearly crossed with the Spongebob Squarepants digital Monopoly game.

Nonetheless, even the advocacy group Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood — Scholastic’s most vociferous critic — estimates that only 14% of the company’s product catalogue consists of noneducational material, which means that a whopping 86% of it is generally OK. In a tough economy in which companies are struggling just to reach payroll, who can’t use an extra revenue stream?

But Scholastic is getting no such latitude about its new coziness with coal. The product that’s causing the furor is an educational poster paid for by the American Coal Foundation and produced and distributed by Scholastic. Its central feature is a map of the U.S. titled “The United States of Energy,” that shows all of the different energy sources produced in or used by each state, with explanations at the bottom of the page. So far, so good. Coal is included, of course, but so are nuclear, oil and natural gas, as well as the key renewables — hydroelectric, wind and solar.

“The focus of the program was simply to put out information about where energy is available, the geography of it,” says Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good.

That the poster does, but not all of the points on the map are created equal. The top 15 coal-producing states, for one thing, are all highlighted in yellow and pop above the others with 3D framing and shadowing. While all of the non-coal energy sources get a single write-up at the bottom of the page, coal gets two — one about mining and one about the uses to which coal is put. And while all of the others are described in straight-ahead, factual detail, coal gets the happy-talk treatment.

Coal is produced in half of the 50 states and America has 27% of the world’s coal resources. In fact, America has more coal that any nation has any single resource. [Italics are as they appear on the map.] Coal is the source of about half of the electricity produced in the United States. About 600 coal-powered plants operate around the clock, providing electricity to homes, businesses and schools.

The environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth was quick to pounce, issuing a press release condemning the poster. “Pure and simple, this is the worst kind of corporate brainwashing,” said the group’s climate and energy tax analyst Ben Schreiber, in a statement. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood weighed in too. “It’s predatory marketing,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director, in a release of her own.

Part of what critics assail the poster for is that it mentions none of the health and environmental downsides of coal. But in fairness, there’s no mention of Fukushima in the write-up about nuclear or the BP spill in the explanation of oil either. Still, the map is unmistakably weighted toward coal, and its reverse side  — where the teacher’s guide is provided — is just as bad, recommending an entire 40-min. class be set aside to “walk students through the basic steps of coal production and how it is used to generate electricity.”

The coal industry is not the only group with which Scholastic has partnered, and Good is quick to point that out. “We did a civics program on the census, helping teachers explain why people should participate,” she says. “We’ve worked with the Federal Trade Commission on media literacy and the National Institute on Drug Abuse to teach about addiction.” Of course, NIDA, the FTC and the census bureau aren’t selling a product — never mind a controversial one — and the coal industry is. Good also mentions that The New York Times is available in classrooms as a commercial product. So, for that matter, is TIME’s own junior partner, Time for Kids — and we clearly aren’t giving it away. No surprise, the folks at TIME (and I suspect at the Times) see a difference between selling news and selling coal — even if selling is undeniably involved in both.

Good would not disclose how much the coal industry paid to have the poster produced and distributed (“We don’t disclose our business dealings with anybody,” she said). Nor did she respond to a follow-up e-mail from TIME asking about the graphical emphasis given to the coal states on the map. A day later, Scholastic issued a statement about the controversy:

This week, Scholastic came under criticism for an 11” x 16” poster map which displays different sources of energy … not so much for the content of the poster but primarily its sponsorship by the American Coal Foundation.  We acknowledge that the mere fact of sponsorship may call into question the authenticity of the information, and therefore conclude that we were not vigilant enough as to the effect of sponsorship in this instance.  We have no plans to further distribute this particular program. Because we have always been guided by our belief that we can do better, we are undertaking a thorough review of our policy and editorial procedures on sponsored content…”

That decision is welcome. Certainly, when an issue is debated as endlessly and loudly as energy and the environment are, there are plenty of other places for kids to hear all sides and get a more balanced view of things. The problem is, it’s the classroom that’s supposed to provide all that in the first place.