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UCR Professor Describes Media Diversity in "The Children are Watching"

UCR Professor Describes Media Diversity in "The Children are Watching"

(February 9, 2000)

As television executives negotiate with minority activists about how many black and brown faces can be seen in front of, or behind, the cameras, Carlos E. Cort?, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside, expressed doubt that deeply-ingrained habits will be quick to change.

"Even if the networks recruit minorities, new voices aren't usually the first they listen to," said Cort?. "Old voices tend to dominate the conversation."

Cort?, whose heritage includes Mexican Catholic immigrants and Jews from Eastern Europe, is known for his insightful analysis of diversity in American popular culture. His latest book, "The Children are Watching: How The Media Teach About Diversity," will be released in March by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

With references to Shirley Temple, O.J. Simpson, popular Disney Movies and HBO's Emmy-winning drama "The Sopranos," Cort? shows how the media, knowingly and unknowingly, are highly influential diversity consultants to our children, and to our society.

"Well before school educators ever began talking about multicultural education, the mass media were multicultural education," Cort? writes in the book's forward. For that reason, he says, educators do not have the power to decide if multicultural education will occur, only if they will consciously participate in the process.

The book has already earned praise from Elizabeth Thoman, president and founder of the Center for Media Literacy. "Once in a while a book comes along that establishes the frame for other works to follow," she wrote. "With wisdom, humor and an invaluable command of the relevant literature,

Cort? deftly defines the questions and establishes the categories for inquiry around the many issues of how and what media teach about diversity." Cort? is no media-basher. Instead, he provides a nuanced understanding of the relationships of the media to education about diversity. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, films and cyberspace can be allies in the process of multicultural education, or enemies. It all depends.

"The Godfather," Cort? said, was a sophisticated film, highly regarded by the critics and deserving of praise. "It does not stereotype Italians-Americans, but it fed into existing stereotypes and spawned less worthy spin-offs." The Mafia is a subject that can be used with subtlety, or it can be abused. Take, for example, the controversy over HBO's critically-acclaimed television series, "The Sopranos." Rather than stereotyping Italian-Americans, Cort? said, "it actually parodies stereotypes in the tradition of 'Prizzi's Honor,' a Jack Nicholson film from 1985."

Cort? points to NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," as proof that a multi-ethnic television show can appeal to a considerable commercial audience. And he noted that the 1997 TV production of the musical, "Cinderella," produced by Whitney Houston, paired an African-American Cinderella with a Filipino-American Prince Charming. "I loved the way it included every combination of interracial couple in the ballroom scene," he said.

Commercial success, Cort? said, is one factor that drives diversity in the media. He speculates, for instance, that it was the popularity of the Kevin Kline movie, "In and Out" that has led to an increase of gay characters on television. "There were gay people in the movie industry long before gay characters appeared regularly on the screen," he noted. Other factors play a role in what kind of diversity we see in the media, he said, including conscious decisions made by media makers. "Until the last few decades, Jewish moguls historically kept Jewish characters out of movies. They felt to be invisible on screen was the best way to assimilate."

In this new century, Cort? said, media makers have a chance to make other conscious decisions based on our understanding of the media's teaching power.

"With that new understanding, they have the opportunity to treat diversity in a more thoughtful and constructive manner," he said.

Carlos E. Cort?, Professor of History, Emeritus
University of California, Riverside
office: (909) 787-5401, ext. 1487
home: (909) 683-6664

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