The Media Education Foundation produces and distributes documentary films and other educational resources to inspire critical reflection on the social, political and cultural impact of American mass media.
Prof. Jhally examined visual images in television and advertising and began collecting media clips from music videos to use in his courses. As his collection of media clips grew, he decided to edit out the music in an attempt to de-contextualize the images, so students could examine the representations without distractions. Eventually, he developed a succinct package of images, with an accompanying narration. In 1990, after many revisions informed by classroom feedback, Jhally's work resulted in the production of a 55-minute videotape, incorporating images from over 160 rock videos, entitled: Dreamworlds: Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Video.
After making the tape available to colleagues in his department and others across campus, Jhally distributed 100 copies of Dreamworlds to Communication and Women's Studies professors across the country. When MTV networks found out about the tape, their legal department sent Jhally a "cease and desist" letter on March 25, 1991. MTV warned if Jhally did not stop distributing the tape (and recall all those already distributed) legal action would be initiated on the ground of copyright violation. Jhally sent a letter to MTV refusing to comply and instead asked MTV to "support and encourage free and open expression of important social issues and First Amendment speech rights." Jhally was prepared to go to court to defend his position, and his convictions elicited widespread support. Extensive media coverage followed, including stories in Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe, placing a spotlight on the free speech rights of media critics.
In his interviews with journalists, Jhally asserted that his work was protected under the fair-use provision of the copyright law, a provision that allows educators to use or duplicate copyrighted material for the purpose of educational critique. Many constitutional lawyers at the time advised Jhally that Dreamworlds offered a very strong case for "fair use," and as there was little case law in this area, MTV vs. Dreamworlds would have been a precedent-setting constitutional case, not least because it would have dealt with the right of huge media corporations to curb discussion and criticism of their public materials. While Jhally's efforts garnered considerable media attention, MTV also happened at the time to be conducting an anti-censorship campaign, and they eventually chose not to pursue legal action. The media coverage from the controversy became a catalyst for Jhally's future successes and contributed to increased sales of Dreamworlds.
Impressed with the high demand for classroom resources that examine the media, Jhally established the Media Education Foundation (MEF) as an independent non-profit organization committed to producing and distributing educational resources, and to researching contemporary media issues.