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Fake News Takes On A Role In Italy's National Political Debate


As the United States gets ready to inaugurate businessman and reality television star Donald Trump, Italy is considering a former comedian for prime minister - Beppe Grillo.

BEPPE SEVERGNINI: His sort of comedy became more and more political. At some point, like a few years ago, he decided to become a politician. And I think he was successful beyond his wildest dreams.

GREENE: That is the voice of Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini, who along with the rest of Italy's media is battling a pretty serious accusation from Grillo, who is a populist leader whose support is growing.

SEVERGNINI: He says that the biggest producer of fake news are the official media in Italy. And some of us didn't like it at all because, in fact, he's quite active in spreading proper fake news and...

GREENE: What's an example? You're saying Grillo and his party have been spreading fake news.

SEVERGNINI: Well, more current is that one of their website is called TzeTze. Recently they publish a story - the title was, "Is The U.S. Covertly Funding Migrant Traffickers To Italy?" - accusing America of having an international plot to bring thousands of desperate migrants from Africa to weaken the European Union or Italy. It's crazy.

GREENE: Is there any legitimate point at all that Mr. Grillo is making? I mean, has the press been very critical of him, his movement? I mean, do you see his point in any way?

SEVERGNINI: Well, he's got several points. In fact, we need an opposition. And in terms of opposition, the Five Star Movement were quite effective. They are actually better than most populist movement in Europe. What I don't like is the secrecy about them, and the fact that they accuse us of spreading fake news when we're not.

GREENE: What has been the reaction among Italian citizens to what Grillo has said, these accusations of fake news against the media?

SEVERGNINI: Journalists and politicians are not very popular nowadays, and I think it's kind of easy for whoever is in power - politicians - to use us - the media - as scapegoat. So it's not a good time to be a journalist in Italy.

GREENE: So interesting because, I mean, this does feel like it mirrors what we are seeing in the United States in a lot of ways. You have a popular politician - Donald Trump - who just won an election and has been incredibly critical of the media. And you have a media and many who have been very critical of Donald Trump suggesting that he puts out statements and tweets, they've suggested that they're not always true. I mean, there's - are you seeing a similarity here?

SEVERGNINI: Oh, yes. But let me tell you something, I am not surprised that politicians try to use Twitter or Facebook or direct television interview to bypass journalists. Fair enough, let them try. What I resent is the fact that we giving up so easily, and we've not been good enough. Because the idea of a democracy surviving without journalists and the media is a very dangerous idea. And some politicians - and I'm afraid your forthcoming president and Beppe Grillo and Le Pen in France - they are playing that game, and they are using the voters' frustration against the media. And we have to defend ourselves, speak up, try to tell people and our readers and listeners and viewers, look, we may not be perfect, but we are useful. We serve something in a democracy.

GREENE: OK, speaking to Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini. Thanks so much for your time, we appreciate it.

SEVERGNINI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.