Half the country is up in arms over President Trump labeling the media an enemy of the people. Clearly, a vibrant democracy needs an independent press. But only an ingénue would believe the media can do no wrong.
When we founded the Italic Institute thirty years ago, part of the reason was to change the negative image of Italy and Italian Americans. Those negative images were overwhelmingly spewed from mass media.
The media is not just television newscasts or daily newsprint. The media includes movies, commercials, stage shows, and anything that is aimed at the general public. Someone once said it’s a “free” press only if you own one. So true. Over the years even getting a letter published objecting to ethnic attacks has been a near impossible task for us. Newspapers don’t like strident letters, letters against reporters, letters that undermine the tone or agenda of the newspaper. You get the idea.
Newspapers, magazines, TV stations, cable networks, and radio programs all have an agenda. Mainstream media’s agenda is to maintain a mass audience to bring in advertising money. That means satisfying whatever demand is out there. But it also means propagating the philosophy of the owner or publisher. Even the most dignified newspaper enjoys titillating readers every now and then. Our own Newsday did a 9-page special on John Gotti’s 2002 funeral, and still “stops the presses” for mob-watching columnists. These wordsmiths often incorporate scenes from Mafia movies into their mob news, to inflate the drama of their minor reports.
Perhaps I would champion the media had I not witnessed firsthand what it is capable of. I’ve seen how Hollywood and the news media are mutually supportive in the treatment of Italian Americans. Stereotype any of the “protected” ethnic groups and it’s labeled defamation. Stereotype Italians and it rises to art. You can only imagine a blockbuster titled The Jihad-father about murderers and Muslim culture, because it would never be made, let alone acclaimed. Make one called The Godfather—extolling Italian thieves and murderers with wedding scenes and baptisms—and you win Academy Awards.
Thirty years’ worth of studying the media has produced many examples of its double standards. One incident stands out. I am a big fan of the TV sitcom Mike & Molly. Set in Chicago, the show features an Italian American character named Vince. In one episode, “School Recital,” Vince is called a wop by another character. Shocked at hearing such a word on CBS-TV during prime-time, I spent the better part of a year appealing to network executives to bleep the word out before syndicating the reruns. I appealed to an African American “Vice President of Diversity,” the Jewish President of CBS, and two Italian Americans who sit on the Corporate Board – all to no avail. In fact, the series is now in reruns on two cable stations with wop intact.
Lesson learned: The media can be just as high-handed as any double-talking politician. -JLM