It’s Time to Portray Italian Americans Differently

Feb 06, 2013 1578

The survival of most media organizations is to obtain that exclusive interview or story. Publishers and editors attempt to separate their media group from the rest, in order to get the exclusive rights to a story even if this implies "by any means necessary."

As a consequence, just look at the much anticipated Sports Illustrated "swimsuit edition" or People Magazine's "Sexist Man Alive" issue or Rolling Stone's exclusive interviews with celebrities every year. One common thread with all media outlets in their pursuit of the story is to use certain marketing strategies to generate public interest even if a story does not have much appeal.

When a story does not capture reader interest, publishers and editors still find a way to gain an edge over their competitors. This usually means, taking a shocking photo, use a quote from an interview and write something out of context, and/or develop a catchy headline. Since it is the history of the media to create sensationalized headlines (this goes as far back as publishers of yellow journalism such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer during the late ninetieth to early twentieth century) many media organizations continue to use unprofessional judgment and have a poor understanding of what integrity means in journalism.

In short, this has always been part of the mainstream media culture. Nonetheless, other writers believe it is their responsibility to bring awareness to the public when the standard has been lowered and articles are entering the abyss of journalism.
A recent example of a media organization publishing a questionable eye catching front cover is Time, January 21st, 2013 issue of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The editors and publishers of Time are not new players in stirring up controversy. Remember last year, Time published a photo of a mother breastfeeding her three year old son. This year once again, Time does not fall short in disappointing its audience, with publishing a picture of Governor Chris Christie with the words The Boss, in red lettering written across. The controversial cover has led many Italian American organizations to condemn the decision of the editors of Time and has even led the governor to sardonically remark in a television interview, "Wait till you see this picture on the cover of Time, I look like Tony Soprano...The governor said the photograph, along with the headline "The Boss" makes him look like a mobster."

Too bad the governor himself has not made this truly one of the many issues surrounding the media's coverage when covering Italian Americans, especially when entering a national political stage. Several days after commenting on his previous quote, the governor was interviewed by a syndicated radio show and remarked "he was flattered by Time's front cover." His usual bulldog approach to certain questions by reporters has not really unleashed itself with Time's decision. A few decades before another Italian American, New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, also dealt with actual rumors by the media about his alleged Mob ties that have never been proven but still affected his decision to run for president. There have been some inconsistencies with whether Governor Christie is actually upset or somewhat grateful for the national exposure.

On behalf of all Italian Americans, the governor should use the moment to educate all citizens and prevent this type of portrayal once and for all. The article describes the governor's mixed Italian American and Scot-Irish background; educational background and his leadership skills especially during Hurricane Sandy. Furthermore, the story also goes on to reveal Christie's interest in meeting his musical idol Bruce Springsteen (also part Italian American on his mother's side) and known as The Boss in the music industry. There is no suggestion that Springsteen's moniker is because of his ethnicity because he was responsible for collecting money from sponsors when his band performed in local bars and afterwards would divide the earnings with his band members.

Some commentators, nevertheless, have tried to put a twist on Time's decision to publish the cover and connect it to the fact that since he is the New Jersey Governor and a huge fan of Springsteen, why not title the story, The Boss. Even though the article briefly mentions the rocker, there is clearly no connection with the editors' word choice. More importantly, however, Time selected a menacing photo of the governor that appears to convey a subliminal message and just like the N-word for African Americans, there are nicknames such as The Boss (or The Godfather) reserved for Italian Americans and in this context become offensive. What will happen if the governor does decide to run for the presidency in 2016, will some other news organization write something libel before he truly demonstrates his combative style?

We all know images and words can be offensive and hurtful and the lexical meanings of these proper nouns exploited by journalists', condition and reinforce the public's already stereotypical perception. When the media covers politicians, there is almost an "anything goes" approach to journalism or "it comes with the territory" response, just ask the president. In July 21st, 2008 The New Yorker published a caricature of (at the time) Presidential Candidate Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim and Michelle wearing a magazine clip with a semi-automatic weapon strapped behind her back. So what is wrong with that?

Well, the same front cover however, also included an image of someone appearing to resemble Osama Bin Laden and the burning of the US flag. The caricature of Obama and the First Lady was already a topic of debate but to include Bin Laden and the burning of the flag suggested a satirical message crossing the line. Of course supporters of The New Yorker claimed it was a satirical message and its readers are able to understand that it was just a political joke. Perhaps, but it is also the responsibility of others within the media to never forget to remind readers to be critical thinkers when the media outlets use certain devices that do more than create controversy.

Therefore, what is the point? Time chose words (The Boss) that is offensive to Italian Americans, whether they realize that or not remains unclear. In most newspapers across the United States, when covering a mobster who is the leader of an organized crime family, it is not unusual to read headlines like Alleged Mob Boss Convicted or Slain Mob Boss Found Dead, thus understand the skepticism in the editors not knowing the reaction of the Italian American community. Writers are going to have fun with the language in part because it is their job. And let's face it; some Italian Americans enjoy the reference to the Mob such as those involved with the Mob Wives franchise. On the other hand, the audience needs to realize the play on words and pictures used by journalists have roots outside TV studios or newspaper headquarters that are both controversial and hurtful to the Italian American community.

This is where Governor Chris Christie should take this opportunity to enlighten the public about what certain words mean to Italian Americans, like other ethnic and racial groups have done in the past. He did react when he was running for NJ Governor in 2008-2009 and his opponent did take a shot about alleged Mob deals that was never proven. Unfortunately, his fervor has subsided somewhat in regards to this matter.

The media continues to portray law abiding Italian Americans as mobsters and their poor taste with Mob infused headlines does not cease because unlike other ethnic, religious or racial groups who have equally suffered the plight of assimilation, the Italian American community does not have a strong voice in the mainstream media. Yes there are Italo-American organizations that speak out against this form of stereotype and kudos to them, but in some ways until we have an influential Italian American person with a strong identity and understanding of his/her heritage, the media's portrayal of Italian Americans as mobsters through its pictures and words will only continue.

by Alfonso Guerriero jr

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