By Joe Cannavo
You may recall a recent editorial in which I pointed out that for a community the size of the Italian-American community in the United States, we lack a strong national mass media. Whether we accept it or not, the fact remains that the mainstream mass media’s idea is to showcase Italian-American “culture” with programs like “Jersey Shore” and “The Sopranos,” and journalistic pieces on the mob and other such literary trash. So as stated in a previous editorial, if it gets ratings and readers, it’s here to stay. Showcasing Italian-American history and positives are not of interest to the American mainstream mass media.
Other prominent ethnic-American communities get more positive play than we do, and if not they know they can rely on their mass media, which is often more extensive and more heavily sponsored than ours.
Since that editorial was published, two incidents have occurred that reinforce my argument. The first occurred at breakfast with friends. Two of them, highly educated and diehard Italian-Americans, had no knowledge that Italian Americans were victims of mass lynchings in the American South, especially in Louisiana. Yes, our people were killed in numbers second only to African Americans in the 19th century South.
The infamous mass lynching on March 14, 1891, of 11 Italians in New Orleans for their alleged role in the murder of police chief David Hennessy is said to be the largest mass lynching in U.S. history. The event is an object lesson in how history is portrayed in mainstream publications, radio talk shows, movies and documentaries.
The second incident occurred when I picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 12, and the first thing to catch my eye was the front-page story on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in camps and jails even though many of them were American citizens. I do not disregard this black page in American history, but no mention was made about the fact that many hard-working, innocent Italian Americans suffered the same fate.
Many of them had children who were sent off to war on the American side, many to Italy itself. More often than not, the American mass media likes to remind Americans that Italy was America’s enemy, which sadly was true. But, where is the positive side of the story, about Italians here who were loyal yet branded as enemy aliens, and Italian-American war heroes like John Basilone?
Several excellent documentaries on this topic were independently produced, but were never given their just dues on national TV. Obviously, the Inquirer doesn’t see the need to engage with the Italian-American community, with the possible exception of Italian-American businesses that it might want to solicit as potential advertisers.
At this point, readers might be thinking, “Why is the Herald’s editor not addressing these issues in the paper or through his affiliation with the local Italian-American radio programs?” Yes, I do need to address these stories in future issues and use my influence on local Italian-American radio to address these issues. However, this message and other positives about our language, heritage and culture will reach our regional Italian-American community and maybe other regional Italian-American publications or local Italian-American broadcasts will tackle these issues and reach out to their respective local enclaves.
In most cases these media have limited space or on-air hours, and funding not sufficient to tackle sometimes-controversial topics. If we had an equivalent to JLTV, Univision, Polish Radio USA, BET, or the World Journal, then real Italian and Italian-American culture, news, music, and entertainment would be exposed on a national level as opposed to what the mainstream media now presents as Italian-American history and culture. However, it’s highly likely that the self-appointed watchdog Italian-American hierarchy will prefer to continue to denounce and fight the big money behind Hollywood, big TV networks, Italian-American actors and publishers who expose and perpetuate the stereotype image of Italians as mobsters, wife abusers, hitmen and cheats as it has since the debut of “The Untouchables” in 1959.
That stereotype is, of course, pure fiction that can only be overcome by a national and unified Italian-American mass media to give exposure to the real us and our true way of life. And no, I don’t mean more Italian TV cooking shows that currently saturate the airwaves touting recipes that are no more Italian than ham and cabbage or goulash.
In the meantime, in the Delaware Valley the Italian-American community and “lovers of all things Italian” can count on the Herald and our local radio to fulfill their obligation to keep our community informed, entertained, and welcoming to all who want to enjoy what Italian culture, heritage and family really mean.