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The Spirit of Marieli

Photo of editor Jason A. Smith

When I first began working at the Academy, I mistook her for a spirit. I would catch just a glimpse of a small figure clad in a long fur coat gliding past the open doorway of the kitchen as I microwaved my leftovers. One day, with a mouthful of spaghetti, I encountered her in the hallway. “Hello, I’m Marieli Rowe,” she said, “You must be the new editor.”

From a clammy basement office in the Academy’s Steenbock Center, Marieli ran a nonprofit called the National Telemedia Council, which worked to provide children, parents, and educators with the tools to understand and navigate our media landscape. The NTC published its own magazine, The Journal of Media Literacy, of which Marieli was editor. During her occasional visits to the office, she and I would compare notes about media industry trends over the cookies from Clausen’s European Bakery she always seemed to have. 

Over the years, I got to know this small-but-mighty woman, who, in her eighties and early nineties, was still brimming with curiosity and good ideas. Her fascination with media literacy as a necessary life skill began in the late-1950s, when she, her husband Jack, and their three young sons moved to Madison. As a parent, Marieli was astonished to find that children’s television programming consisted largely of shows that were product placements rather than educational programs. In the early 1960s, she joined the Wisconsin Association for Better Broadcasts, a group dedicated to helping people understand the new medium of television and its impact on youth. She later became WABB president and steered the organization in a national direction as the National Telemedia Council. For over 50 years with Marieli at the helm, the NTC held annual conferences and published The Journal of Media Literacy to keep educators informed of trends, best practices, and egregious offenses.

Over the years, Marieli came to be known as one of the “grandparents of media literacy.” Marieli’s approach to media was pure critical thinking shot through with a healthy dose of skepticism. And, in today’s crowded digital media environment, her admonition to “look, listen, think, and respond” is more relevant than ever. A student of history (as well as a mountain climber, world traveler, and so much more), Marieli was well aware of the power of the media to distort reality and mislead people. She was born Mary Dorothy Löwenstein in Bonn, Germany, in 1936, a city she fled with her family—first to Switzerland and, later, the United States—to escape the Nazis. Marieli deeply understood that our cherished American values could only be properly exercised by a people who are well informed by truth. She saw media literacy as the tool to secure our democracy—and to combat societal extremism and political polarization.

The world needs more people like Marieli, who passed away last fall after a long battle with cancer. May she rest well, knowing that the spirit of her work lives on not only in The Journal of Media Literacy, which is going on its 68th year, but in the pages of the Academy’s magazine as well.

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From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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