Saturday, January 26, 2008

No country for young men

You leave the country for a few days, and what happens? The government collapses. It's moments like this when you really wonder why some world leaders would continue to make such a fuss about "spreading democracy". Romano Prodi served 20 months on the slimmest of margins, narrowly avoiding ouster last February. As the Guardian points out, 20 months is an admirable showing in post-war Italy, which has now had a staggering 61 governments in 60 years. If Italy were a stock it would have been delisted long ago, its shareholders in the red.

What happened this time? It all started with Prodi's justice minister Clemente Mastella pulling his support for Prodi last week in a juvenile protest. The protest? Magistrates arrested Mastella's wife on corruption charges and announced he too is under investigation. Mastella, a good Catholic, had no choice but to respond by pulling a Judas-like revolt, forcing a do-or-die vote of confidence vote for the Prodi government, which he of course lost. Let's recap here: the justice minister topples the government because an independent judiciary decides to investigate their boss (and his wife) for an ongoing corruption ring in the Naples area that is costing taxpayers a fortune. Does any of this make sense? Of course not. It's Italian politics.

Now, the Prodi government, which already was largely powerless to push through any meaningful reform, is no longer. Instead, we have political chaos just as the global economic picture is looking bleak. But Italy's wealthiest man, Silvio Berluconi is gleeful. He will no doubt be re-elected.

Ordinary citizens look at Italian politics with incredulity. All politicians all over the world are self-serving. But Italian politicians operate in their own world. They are answerable to no-one but each other. They go into power for one thing: to enrich their friends, family and lovers, and more and more these days, the Catholic Church. Where have you heard of such a political system before? Open your sixth-grade history text books. Yep, it's modern-day feudalism. You have a ruling elite consisting of old men with a disproportionate amount of wealth and power, a powerful church that dictates to them and a pitiful peasantry (with university degrees).

Of course feudalism ended in a moment of enlightenment just a few hours north of Rome. And today? Nope. Disaffection rules. The most sensible Italians are telling me they refuse to vote in the next election. Why should they?!, they snap. We deserve Berlusconi, Xtina tells me. At least he was transparent in his aim to pass laws designed solely to save his ass and assets from various criminal investigations. That's understandable. But what's the alternative?

Italy, a G8 member, has turned back the dial to a previous millennium -- or, if you think about it, a good 400 years further back in history than where the Taliban would like to set up shop. The country is losing its best minds increasingly for a life abroad where there are more opportunities and fewer Italian politicians. Unlike a millenium ago, the brain drain is robbing this country of its next Galileo, its next Leonardo, its next Michelangelo.

If modern-day Italians are lucky, the church/state hydra will push the country back even further, back in time to say the fourth century. Evidently, between 300 and 400 A.D. were good times in the Roman Empire, an era of prosperity and promise. A lot of Italians could live with that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Football Americano, Americano

I'm a bit groggy today. I stayed up til the blessed hour of 4:18 a.m. to watch i giganti, The NY Giants, win an overtime thriller last night/this morning against the Green Bay Packers. The NFL's muddle-headed policy of scheduling early evening games in the U.S. all but kills any potential to draw new fans in more distant time zones. Not wise when you are trying to cultivate an international following. Don't send us two grumbling teams to play in the mud in London. Just schedule some meaningful games at an hour where a greater percentage of the planet can follow along.

Case in point: a few weeks ago, for the Giants-Bucs game, Stefano and Luca joined me at a local pub around 8 p.m. Despite the foreignness of the game, they seemed fixed on the action. (Luca, by halftime, was asking me technical questions about the difference between NFL and rugby infractions. I made something up. All I know about the infractions in rugby is that you are to address the referee as "sir" or risk getting a few more yards tacked off against you.) After the game, energized by witnessing their first Giants victory, they wanted to know when the next one was. When I told them the kickoff would be 12:45 a.m., they simply responded "ciao. Tell us how it goes."

So how does a Giants fan in a strange land get his game day fix? The answer, as always: Rupert Murdoch. His Sky Italia pay TV service carries NFL games. Perfect, I thought. I'll splurge. I ordered a month of Sky and prepared to watch my Giganti play in frozen Wisconsin Monday morning. When I flipped on the channel I saw the normal Fox broadcast, but muted. Instead, we had two excitable Italians giving play-by-play from some studio somewhere. I grumbled. Call me a spoiled American, but I don't want to see NFL games dubbed into Italian. It's just not right. Xtina, who only gets excited about cartoons and political talk shows, brightened. It will be good for your vocabulary, she said.

Sacked by my polyglot wife.

But she was right in the end. Soon I was getting into the televised coverage, even if it felt as if these guys were calling the play-by-play of a completely different sport, or perhaps a gun battle in Fallujah. It certainly wasn't football - American or otherwise. They would get terribly excited anytime there was any type of ball movement whatsoever. Think John Madden. After a double espresso. Under heavy enemy fire. In tone, one-yard gains sounded like Hail Mary bombs. Down field passes were DOWN FIELD PASSES to BO-rrrrrrress. Long running plays were flowing with detail. Bradshaw's run went something like this:

Brad-SHOW prende la palla. (Bradshaw takes the ball)

Brad-SHOW cerche per blocchi. (Bradshaw looks for blocks)

Brad-SHOW cerche per LA LUCE. (Bradshaw looks for the light)

Brad-SHOW AVANZA! (Bradshaw advances)

then it gets interesting... The more jaded American announcer might skip a few yards on a long run, maybe counting off every ten. Not in Italy.

we then hear:

BRAD-SHOW. SULLA 40. SULLA 38. sulla 35. sulla 30. sulla 25. SULLA 20. SULLA 15.... and on until he scored, never once inhaling. The cigarette, no doubt, still glowing.

I was angry with the call, but I felt also as if it was the announcer who was truly robbed on the play. He recovered though. This man and his sidekick, wherever they were doing this play-by-play from (mysteriously, we never saw their faces), were professionals.

They powered on into the early morning hours. The last few minutes of the game was one crescendo after another. By the time Tynes lined up for the overtime field goal attempt, I was emotionally spent. I muted the TV, fearing the call of a winning field goal attempt would wake up the building and require me to explain myself at the next tennant's meeting. The kick sailed through the uprights. I checked my blood pressure, then my watch. 4:18 a.m.

pazzi giganti!, I thought. I have to do this again in two weeks.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Yorker in the room

Last night a few of us broke away from a wine tasting to catch a speech by The New Yorker's David Remnick, part of an ongoing Lezioni di Giornalismo series here in Rome. Never mind that none of us had tickets. The event sold out long before, and even my press credentials were proving useless with the organizers. So, we did the only sensible thing. The four of us - Mauro, Manuel, Niccola and I, all "professional" journalists -- sneaked in and inconspicuously took up an entire row in the center of the auditorium.

It was well worth the risk.

Remnick spoke about the history of The New Yorker, its philosophy, its colorful roster of editors and writers, plus regaled us with insights about the magazine. For instance, in the hours after the attacks on Sept. 11, Remnick, looking for guidance, went back in the archives to see how the previous editors covered the attack on Pearl Harbor. The magazine dedicated just a few lines to the event that sent the United States to war, squeezed into a story about a football game at the Polo Grounds. That was it. Just a few lines. Later, the magazine redeemed itself with courageous reporting on the beaches of Normandy, from Italy and an epic piece in 1946 on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing that took up the entire magazine. The article, at 31,000 words, broke new ground (you can read more about here) in investigative journalism. The New Yorker has always been about going "deep" on a topic, as Remnick says, and it will continue to do so in the Internet age.

Sadly for me, book-length reportage is an art that's not at all common outside of the Anglo Saxon media world. There are a variety of factors for this; time (the readers') and money (the publishers') is the biggest culprit. In a pip-squeak media market like Italy (but certainly not only Italy), the emphasis is on short, easily digestible stories and lots of images. You can flip through most weekend news magazines here between lunch and nap time. In some weeks, you can wring out all the meaningful stuff while sitting in the smallest room in the house.

The point that drew the most post-speech discussion from our group was the idea that there exists a publication that still strives for independence and balance. In other words, a publication that makes editorial decisions based on news value, not based on the owner's pet causes nor on shareholders' returns. Remnick says he has never once received a call from Conde Nast brass seeking to influence the upcoming story lineup. And, he's never received a call afterwards either. Mauro, sitting next to me, gasped.

A truly independent commercial media, one could easily argue, does not exist. That's not really true. I have written for plenty of American and European publications. The difference is that Americans try their best to operate with a wall between the business and editorial side of the publication. In Europe, that wall fell down a long time ago. It certainly doesn't exist in the flag-waving world of Italian media where captains of industry and politicians (the same people in many cases) have turned their publications into propaganda sheets to manipulate public opinion and sabotage rivals. What's lost in such a scenario is credibility.

The press cannot function without credibility. It's as simple as that. In a world of spinmeisters, propagandists and elected liars, to paraphrase Remnick, a credible press is the only thing separating democracy from a tyranny of special interests.

Remnick was cautious in his assessment of the blogosphere. It's biggest failing too is credibility. I agree with this entirely. But I do believe blogs have created a powerful forum too, one that is capable of holding companies and politicians accountable, oh, and the press too. Yes, and me too.