Civil Liberties



E Pluribus Umbrage

Tim Cavanaugh, author of "E Pluribus Umbrage" (December), finds it amusing that in the midst of the church's priest scandal, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights "alerted its 300,000 members to a grave threat to the faith: a King of the Hill episode in which cartoon housewife Peggy impersonates a nun."

This makes it sound as if we object to Sister Act portrayals, but anyone who has really followed the Catholic League knows this is bunk. Our objection to this episode was the vile way in which the Eucharist was treated. Cavanaugh omits this because it would interfere with the point he wants to make.

On a more important note, Cavanaugh says that our petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) protesting Opie and Anthony shows we really do believe in censorship. This is nonsense. Congress long ago established the FCC, and no one has ever ruled it to be a censorial body. Indeed, when we succeeded in getting the show kicked off the air, we immediately requested the FCC not to go through with yanking the license of the station.

Perhaps the most telling comment by Cavanaugh is his remark that "the most endearing thing about Bill Donohue is that he genuinely seems to enjoy hurting people." It would be more accurate to say I enjoy giving it to intellectual jackasses. Cavanaugh will escape my wrath because he is no intellectual.

William A. Donohue
President, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
New York, NY

Kudos for Tim Cavanaugh's well-written piece on the subject of stereotyping. He makes some cogent points.

However, as a teacher and longtime Italian-American historian, I did spot an error. When David Chase "lampooned" activists in a recent episode of The Sopranos, he wasn't poking fun at the alleged absurdity of rampant Italian stereotyping in Hollywood. He was making fun of the activists personally, out of spite. Their crime? No, not a sense of victimization, which they have never claimed for themselves; rather, their acknowledgment of the constant degradation of the Italian-American image in the media, which extends far beyond The Sopranos to TV sitcoms, advertising, theater, pulp fiction, newspapers, etc.

I find it amazing that Cavanaugh isn't amazed that over 800 films produced about Italians since 1928 portray us as the unofficial scum of the country. Does he actually buy into these images? Is he also a secret fan of The Sopranos, with its Grand Guignol theatrics? And doesn't this constant mocking of Italian-American culture prove that discrimination doesn't take place just via housing or the workplace—that Italian-American actors, writers, and directors are forced to prostitute their talents in order to succeed in Hollywood?

Of course, one can always do so willingly, as have David Chase and others. Far from being labeled racists, however, these self-loathing types are acclaimed as great artists. They earn high ratings, win distinguished awards, and, alas, even get glowing write-ups in reason.

Bill Dal Cerro
Chicago, IL

I don't agree with Ted Grippo's attempt to silence The Sopranos. The best way to fight stereotypes is with real-life accomplishments, which Italian Americans certainly have exhibited in this country.

However, Tim Cavanaugh and Nick Gillespie ("Looking for Hate in all the Wrong Places," December) are wrong on three counts. First, Gillespie disputes the charge that the show regularly portrays "Italo-Americans as uneducated, low-life brutes." Come on, really. I don't know what episodes he's been watching, but the few that I have seen were overwhelmingly full of such characters. Fine, I don't have to watch the show.

Second, as a weekly program The Sopranos has more influence than, say, a truly intriguing and artful work about the Mafia, such as the film Goodfellas, and so it must shade America's perceptions of Italian Americans. Terrible? Not compared to what other ethnic groups undergo, sure. But stereotypes are still wrong. Otherwise, why not have a show that suggests all Arab Americans are terrorists? Why is one acceptable and the other not?

Finally, from what I've seen, this TV show isn't much good on merit. The Sopranos glorifies violence for its own sake. Goodfellas uses violence to reveal the Mafia for what it is: a sad group of bullies who'd rather break heads than use their heads. Not the Sopranos bunch, who are portrayed as generally regular, if rough, guys in the garbage hauling business with psychological problems just like the rest of us.

V. Racanelli
Brooklyn, NY

Tim Cavanaugh replies: Bill Donohue confirms that he is America's premier insult comic, though I would have preferred he call me a "hockey puck" rather than a jackass. I'm also relieved he only wants the government to force programmers to cancel offensive shows; for a second there I thought he was in favor of censorship. The Catholic League's war on cartoon characters speaks for itself.v

I doubt V. Racanelli's and Bill Dal Cerro's claims that Mafia pictures have real-life consequences for Italian Americans. Activists frequently note Mob fiction became more popular as the actual Mob withered and the Italian-American community produced enough notables to fill several Who's Who volumes. This is a familiar trajectory; westerns really caught on once the West was paved.

Special Ed Confidential

I just read Lisa Snell's "Special Education Confidential" (December). Bravo! I am a speech pathologist who worked for 25 years in public schools here in west central Florida. It is just as she describes it. I left special education in disgust over the lunacy of it all. We had to pack the kids in to generate funds for our salary. It was an unwritten law we all followed.

Please keep up the good work and shine the light on the crooked aspects of the education bureaucracy. How about taking on the textbook industry and their conspiracy to shake the American public down?

Jim Duffey
St.Petersburg, FL

Lisa Snell should be a lot more cautious in her attitude toward special education. I am a parent of two children with disabilities. One child has ADHD, L.D., and Asperger's Syndrome; the other child has spina bifida, ADHD, L.D., and speech and language disabilities. I have been an advocate for almost 20 years and I can attest that never once in those years have I ever had a parent say they looked forward to the fight they knew would be waged to get the proper education for their child!

The article does a real disservice to those children who do have learning differences. It is difficult enough for parents to get our children properly diagnosed by the school system and then put on individual educational plans without Snell suggesting that perhaps most of them do not actually have a disability.

Snell used her nephew Clayton as an example of a student who might have been diagnosed as learning disabled because he was not properly taught how to read in kindergarten. But did her sister ever actually have Clayton evaluated? If not, that's sad, because as Clayton gets into the higher grades, a true learning disability might raise its ugly head.

Phonemic awareness and sound symbol segmentation, mentioned by Snell, are generally the preferred method used to teach reading to the special education student. That might be why Clayton picked up on the reading and improved his scores so quickly.

Carole Nelson
Medford, MA

As a former high school industrial education teacher, I fully agree with Lisa Snell's article. Academia dumping phonics in favor of "whole language" and other failed concepts is the reason that many kids cannot read.

These days high school graduates often require high school remedial work as college freshmen because they lack reading and comprehension skills. If products of the academic college preparation track can't read, consider those students not attending college. One problem the manufacturing industry is facing is employees and applicants who are unable to read simple instructions.

Richard Becker
Broomfield, CO

Woe is Media

Thanks to Matt Welch for strumming the pretenses of journalism's elite ("Woe is Media," December). The sweetest music to my ears was this: "It is hard to distract men so despondent with the news of such salutary post-1955 developments as female editors, 24-hour cable news, alternative weeklies, business journals, and fingertip access to 10,000 faraway newspapers."

How true. In my 13 years at the weekly Orange County Business Journal, I've seen our vaunted dailies, the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register, endure several rounds of staff cuts. As I write this, the Times is putting the finishing touches on a regional approach to news coverage that has sharply reduced the paper's Orange County presence, while the Register is undergoing layoffs and other cost cuts as a possible prelude to a sale.

The OCBJ has recently felt the effects of a soft advertising market too. But we're still running in the black, and unlike the big boys we've managed to keep intact our record for never having had a layoff. Our success amid adversity is the kind of small-business story you'd think the dailies might get around to covering, but not yet. Perhaps our financial and editorial success hits a little too close to home. The dailies have been similarly dismissive of the OCBJ's ideological opposite but functional soul mate, the alternative OC Weekly, another relative newcomer that has found avid readers and healthy profits in the shadows of the faltering giants.

This Orange County dynamic is being repeated in communities across the country, where business journals and alternative papers have taken root and grown with only grudging acknowledgment, at best, from the journalism establishment.

Oh, well. Business readers know that the typical understaffed business section of a daily newspaper is increasingly reliant on wire stories, consumer features, and personal finance items. It's the business journals that are filled with enterprising reporting on economic trends, corporate winners and losers, entrepreneurs, real estate deals, and the like.

This adds up to good news for journalism, when taken in sum with all of the other specialty publications, cable channels, and online services. There's also increased energy in community papers—one group, at least, that seems to be benefiting from big-media consolidation. Those papers' lower-paid reporters have in many cases picked up the slack from the retreating parent dailies. Bottom line, decrying the state of journalism because daily newspapers are in decline is like decrying transportation in the early 20th century because railroads were then in decline: It was only depressing if you failed to notice all of the new automobiles and airplanes.

Rick Reiff
Executive Editor
Orange County Business Journal
Irvine, CA