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NY Times, Sept. 28, 2018
Journalist Who Spread Conspiracy Theories Will Oversee Italy’s State TV
By Jason Horowitz
ROME — Marcello Foa has spread the claim that Hillary Clinton attended a
satanic dinner. He broke the news on his blog of a full-scale American
military mobilization that never happened. A fan of the Russian leader
Vladimir V. Putin and a guest on Russia Today, he doubts the evidence
that Moscow’s operatives poisoned a former Soviet spy because it is “too
Mr. Foa is also now the Italian government’s most influential media figure.
On Wednesday night, leaders of Italy’s populist government cheered as a
parliamentary committee approved Mr. Foa as chairman of Italy’s state
broadcaster RAI, which has millions of viewers, thousands of employees
and is, in Mr. Foa’s estimation, the most powerful cultural force in the
Supporters of Mr. Foa argue that he is an independent voice free of
institutional allegiances and RAI’s insidious establishment bias against
populist voices. His critics argue that his right-wing politics,
euro-skepticism, concerns about the “damaging” effects of combination
vaccines, and tendency to re-tweet conspiracy theories should have
disqualified him for the job.
But he was the pick of Matteo Salvini, the powerful leader of the
anti-immigrant League, who Mr. Foa helped introduce in March to Stephen
K. Bannon, President Trump’s former senior adviser. He also has ties to
Mr. Salvini’s coalition partners, the Five Star Movement.
Mr. Foa’s appointment now has raised alarms about the state of the
Italian media, never too healthy to begin with, and represents a victory
of the populist parties over the establishment media that once
It is far from symbolic, though. Mr. Foa’s appointment signals an
opening gambit by Italy’s populists to take their anti-establishment
message, and ambition to reshape public perception, from social media to
the televised media mainstream, where the vast majority of Italy still
gets its information.
On the eve of his appointment, Mr. Foa, 55 and affable, offered a
glimpse of his new office with eight television screens in the wall, and
shared passages of his book exploring the ways that politicians and spin
doctors manipulate the truth and spread misinformation.
“The paradox for me is that somebody accused me of being a producer of
fake news,” he said in a long interview.
Instead, he said, he would work to reverse what he claimed was a de
facto veto at RAI of euro-skeptic politicians and government ministers,
and to introduce voices to make the broadcaster “mirror” the current
Italy’s media have long warped standard journalistic practices like a
The brother of Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate and former prime
minister, nominally owned il Giornale, where Mr. Foa spent decades
working as a reporter and editor.
For years, Mr. Berlusconi flooded his private newspaper and channels and
public airways with pro-Berlusconi propaganda, and it was Mr. Berlusconi
who greenlighted Mr. Foa’s nomination, in exchange for political
Political agendas, partisan slants, a porous line between journalists
and publicists (who call themselves journalists), anonymous
reconstructions, conspiratorial tones and little accountability for
false reports have riddled the credibility of the Italian press.
All of that fueled polarization and national frustration over the media,
which Italy’s new populist leaders, Mr. Salvini and Luigi Di Maio of the
Five Star Movement, clobbered as they rose to power.
The result is a largely impotent press that has failed to hold
accountable populist leaders who reach enormous audiences directly with
their social media accounts.
Mr. Foa said this was only natural, because by suppressing alternative
voices on the state broadcaster, “You push the success of Di Maio and
Salvini’s Facebook pages.”
He allowed that it is perhaps not especially helpful for a free press or
democracy when leaders dismiss stories they do not like as fake news.
All the same, he said, attacking the news media was “part of the game”
and so it was wrong to blame the politicians. “It’s not their fault, for
me,” he said.
The Five Star Movement’s hostility to the news media traces back to its
co-founders — the comedian Beppe Grillo and the late Gianroberto
Casaleggio, an internet entrepreneur.
Mr. Grillo often featured his disdain for reporters on his wildly
popular blog, calling them “the walking dead,” among other things. Mr.
Casaleggio was an admirer of Mr. Foa’s right-wing blog and a futurist
who envisioned a democratization of politics and media on the web.
The party has built a reputation for secrecy, doublespeak and antagonism
to critical coverage.
In July, the government’s top spokesman, Rocco Casalino, an alumnus of
the reality television show “Big Brother” and a Five Star power broker,
made a thinly veiled threat to pull state funding from a newspaper, Il
Foglio, which has been critical of the government.
“Now that Il Foglio will close, what will you do?” Mr. Casalino said to
a reporter from the paper. “Can you tell me what purpose Il Foglio has?
Why does is exist?”
The outburst prompted the Order of Journalists in Lombardy, to which Mr.
Casalino belongs, to open an investigation into whether he had violated
professional guidelines. In turn, the Five Star Movement’s blog
advocated the abolishment of the organization.
Instead, in the current government it is Mr. Salvini, a former radio
disc jockey, who has begun the charm offensive, wrapping his extreme
language in an earthy, endearing delivery.
He has dominated Italian politics by dominating news cycles in Trumpian
style — offering up some nugget, often over Twitter, that is outrageous
and offensive to his haters, red meat to his supporters and simply
irresistible to the Italian media. He has 3.2 million followers on
Facebook and 880,400 on Twitter.
Mr. Foa first met Mr. Bannon, the former executive chairman of the
right-wing Breitbart News, at the Lugano house of the Swiss financier
Tito Tettamanti. He said he later helped arrange a meeting between Mr.
Bannon and Mr. Salvini.
The mainstream press had a habit of “portraying all these events in such
a mysterious way,” Mr. Foa said.
Mr. Foa’s son, Leonardo, fresh out of college, now works with Mr.
Salvini’s social media maestro, Luca Morisi. (Mr. Foa said his son got
the job on his own.) Mr. Morisi’s team includes many alumni of
Casaleggio Associates, which administers Five Star’s internet platform
and is now run by Davide Casaleggio, the founder’s son.
Before the election, Mr. Morisi acknowledged that the official website
“We’re With Salvini” shared the same Google codes as sites supportive of
the Five Star Movement, as well as “I’m With Putin” and other conspiracy
“But we have nothing to do with the pro-Putin or pro-Five Star sites,”
Mr. Morisi said at the time.
Since becoming Italy’s interior minister and vice premier, Mr. Salvini’s
constant social media posts, television appearances and campaign-style
travel have raised the question of when he actually works. But that is
perhaps an outdated conception of work in an age when the media message
is the métier.
At 12:38 p.m. on Sept. 24, the government passed Mr. Salvini’s tough new
immigration law. At 12:55 p.m. he posted a smiley face emoticon. At 1:09
p.m., he tweeted a link to himself talking about it on Facebook Live. At
1:45 he tweeted that the hashtag about his decree, #DecretoSalvini, was
“in ten minutes already third on Twitter in Italy! Thank you.” At 2:59,
he tweeted that the hashtag was “FIRST in Italy on Twitter.”
Mr. Foa has had his own adventures on Twitter.
A few days before the 2016 United States presidential election, he
shared an Italian blog post claiming Mrs. Clinton had attended a
“satanic” dinner with John Podesta.
He said that the report seemed plausible to him because he recalled
reading in some “very serious press” about “pedophilic” art in the
collection of Mr. Podesta. (John’s brother, Tony Podesta, collects
“I didn’t go deep on this,” he said in the interview this week in his
defense, acknowledging that he “might be wrong,” and that he sometimes
succumbed to the temptation to publish the sensational to boost his
audience on social media.
“It’s happened to me a couple of times,” he said.
In 2017, he falsely claimed the United States military was preparing to
mobilize 150,000 reservists, possibly for a war against Syria or North
Korea or Russia. He said a friend in American national security circles
told him Mr. Trump had called up reservists and that he checked with an
expert he knew in Italy who said it was true.
“So I had two sources and I wrote just five lines on my blog, ten lines.
And that’s all,” he said.
Still, he thinks reporters could be more cautious, when, for instance,
reporting that Russia was behind the March poisoning of a former Soviet
Spy, Sergei V. Skripal.
“It’s too obvious for me,” Mr. Foa said of the evidence in the case.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘Oh, you see, Putin is the bad guy doing the bad
His prime concern now, though, he said, is restoring the credibility of
RAI, which he said had been destroyed by an establishment, anti-populist
bias. Without that trust, he said, political parties, internet trolls
and regular citizens would continue to use social media to misinform the
public and erode democracy.
“We’re in a very dangerous territory,” he said.
Emma Johanningsmeier contributed reporting from Rome.
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