It's no great wonder that much of the Italian media did not report critically on the electoral campaign of multi-billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. After all, he owns Italy's three main private TV networks and other major media outlets. But what excuse does the U.S. press have for its flaccid coverage of Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, who is now prime minister of that country's 59th government since World War II?
U.S. journalists repeatedly refer to the Italian TV tycoon as a "self-made" success story. George Will called the Italian TV tycoon a "gaudy self-creation" (Newsweek, 5/21/01) and a Scripps Howard editorial (5/15/01) described him as a "self-made billionaire." Of course, there is no such animal as a self-made billionaire, particularly in a country like Italy, where a corrupt old guard of economic and political power-brokers helped Berlusconi build his media empire.
During the run-up to the May 13 elections, "Sua Emittenza" ("His transmittance"), as Berlusconi is widely known in Italy, marshaled his opinion-molding TV and print venues to demonize his adversaries and further his own political ambitions. A survey cited by the International Federation of Journalists showed that Berlusconi's television channels gave him four times more exposure than his main rival (AP Online, 5/14/01). Taking advantage of a huge campaign war chest and disproportionate access to national media, Berlusconi and his extreme-right coalition partners were able to secure absolute majorities in both houses of parliament.
As prime minister, Berlusconi controls Italy's three public TV stations in addition to his own networks, which means that nearly the entire broadcasting system of the world's six-largest industrialized economy effectively rests in the one man's hands.
"Italy puts on a black shirt"
The idea that a scandal-ridden media mogul–turned–politician could wield such power caused great consternation in prominent European publications, which warned that Berlusconi's $14 billion business empire is so vast and influential that he cannot possibly hold high political office without undermining political pluralism in Italy. Declaring him "unfit to govern," the pro-business British Economist (4/28/01) went so far as to brand Berlusconi a danger to democracy
Before the vote, several European newspapers—including the Financial Times in London, Le Monde in Paris, El Mundo in Spain, and the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung—emphasized Berlusconi's shady track record, including convictions on charges of perjury, falsifying financial records, tax offenses and bribery, and the half dozen criminal cases still pending against him (Agence France Presse, 5/03/01).
Berlusconi was also roundly chastised for his willingness to forge opportunistic alliances with unabashed racists and neofascist parties. "An ugly situation has arisen in Italy and Europe. Racist and intolerant forces have come into power again," the Swedish tabloid Expressen (5/14/01) declared the day after Berlusconi's far-right/populist coalition prevailed at the polls.
When Berlusconi introduced his cabinet, European commentators condemned his decision to include Umberto Bossi, the xenophobic and homosexual-baiting chief of the Northern League, as a minister in the new government, along with four members of the far-right National Alliance, led by self-proclaimed "post-fascist" Gianfranco Fini, who is currently Italy's deputy prime minister. "Italy puts on a black shirt" was the verdict from the right-leaning Belgian daily Derniere Heure, while an editorial in France's Le Soir called it "shameful" and "a pact with the devil" (Agence France Presse, 6/11/01) .
By contrast, U.S. media were quick to downplay the significance of neofascists and right-wing extremists in the Italian government. "A small and dwindling quantity of Mussolini nostalgia taints, very slightly, a fringe of Berlusconi's coalition," George Will wrote in Newsweek (5/21/01), while the International Herald Tribune's John Vincour (5/11/01) made light of the "presumed far-right nasties" that are among Berlusconi's political partners.
Time magazine (5/28/01) described Fini, the deputy prime minister who had cut his teeth as head of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), Europe's oldest neofascist party, as "a moderate conservative who has severed ties with the party's pro-Mussolini roots." New York Times correspondent Alessandra Stanley (6/11/01) also stated that Fini had "cleansed" his party "of its fascist roots."
Few U.S. reporters bothered to examine the website of his party's youth wing, which pays tribute to convicted Nazi war criminals. Nor did any major U.S. media outlet mention a key fact—that Berlusconi had publicly aligned himself with Fini before the MSI chief gave his organization a face-lift and renamed it the National Alliance in 1994 in an effort to project a more moderate image. That year, Berlusconi and Fini partnered for the first time to form a short-lived national government.
In 1994, when Berlusconi nominated to a ministerial post Mirko Tremaglia, a diehard extremist who had soldiered for Mussolini's Salo Republic in the waning days of World War II, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro nixed the appointment because of Tremaglia's fascist past. But his fascist pedigree did not prevent Tremaglia from securing a cabinet post in Berlusconi's current government.
The New York Times depicted Berlusconi's penchant for teaming up with neofascists as evidence of his talent as a politician. Headlined "Berlusconi's Balancing Act With Italy's Rightists," an article by John Tagliabue (5/9/01) mentioned his "uncanny skill at bringing disparate partners under one political umbrella."
These "disparate partners" included Fiammi Tricolore (Tricolor Flame), an unapologetically fascist sect that made an electoral pact with Berlusconi during this year's campaign. Popular among skinheads and neo-Nazis, Tricolor Flame is led by Pino Rauti, a veteran of the terrorist underground. Three members of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), another neofascist group formed by Rauti, were sentenced in June to life in prison for a 1969 bomb attack in Milan that killed 16 people and injured 88 others.
U.S. journalists have long been inured to commercial interests dominating national politics. But Berlusconi's media monopoly in Italy and his partnership with neofascists should ring alarm bells in any self-respecting democracy. History has taught us the dangers of an alliance between big business and fascism. It seems, however, that U.S. media have forgotten the lesson.
Martin A. Lee, former editor of Extra!, is the author of The Beast Reawakens, a book on neofascism.