Alexander Stille is a renowned American journalist and university professor. His father, Ugo Stille, was a renowned Italian journalist and former editor of the Milan-based leading daily Corriere della Sera. Alexander Stille graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is currently working there as a professor of journalism.
He has written extensively on Italy domestic and foreign policies and has been a vocal critic of the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, accusing him of corruption, accumulating illegitimate power, and creating an unrivaled media monopoly in the country. Stille has also written about the role of the Sicilian mafia in Italian politics and the connections of some of the nation’s high-ranking politicians with the criminal syndicate.
Prof. Stille has written articles, op-eds and commentaries for Foreign Policy, The Boston Globe, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He has also published several books, including “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic.” His newest book, “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace”, will be published in the coming February.
I’ve conducted an interview with Prof. Stille and talked to him about journalism, Italian politics, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and freedom of press. What follows is the text of my interview with Prof. Stille.
Kourosh Ziabari: Dear Alexander, you have experienced working with several mainstream newspapers and magazines including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Was it easy to make it into these publications? In a broader sense, I want to ask you, is professionalism in journalism and offering high quality work and expertise in one’s field the only criteria which the mainstream media consider in order to accept a journalist and work with him? Don’t these media evaluate the journalists from ideological viewpoint in order to cooperate with them?
Alexander Stille: Of course, I would like to believe that whatever success I have enjoyed is entirely due to my own merit. When I started out in the 1980s, I did feel that the people I dealt with judged me pretty much entirely on whether I was able to produce work that they could use. I approached most of the publications I wrote for without knowing anyone there. Although I would be naïve to suppose that some things in my background helped me, at least indirectly: I had been to a very well-known university. I went to graduate school at Columbia, which gave me a useful credential. But, I do think, in the end, you had to produce good work that people wanted.
As for political ideology, I never felt judged that way, but I wasn’t trying to write in a particular ideological vein. Certainly, traditional media in this country are wary of someone who is considered outside the mainstream. Although because we are such a market society, if you can find a clever way to market even unorthodox views – “Bring back Karl Marx” or “What this country needs is Shariah Law!” – you could probably make a small niche out of it. But you would have to be clever.
KZ: In your article “The Paradox of the New Elite,” you quoted Prof. Karabel’s statement who has said that “after the immigration reform of 1965, this country went from being the United States of Europe to being the United States of the World.” Do you consider the economic, scientific and technological advancements of the United States a result of the open-door policy of Washington which attracted thousands of immigrants from the developing world and provided them with precious occupational and educational opportunities?
AS: I think the openness of our society has been a great strength, but not only since the new immigration law of 1965. Since 1901, a quarter of American Nobel Prize winners were actually foreign-born. Most of these were European, many of them Jewish. Since the 1965 law that opened up immigration from all over the world, we have seen that spectrum broaden to include other continents and many other countries. I think the U.S. has benefitted greatly, not only scientifically, but culturally and politically as well.
KZ: What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement? At the beginning, the people started to protest at the economic crisis which has entrapped the U.S., causing great loss of jobs, homes, growing poverty and uneven distribution of wealth. But with time, the protesters began to complain about the wars the U.S. had waged in different countries and also begrudged the disappearing and fading democratic values for which their ancestors had struggled for many years. What’s your analysis of this movement and the grievances of its participators?
AS: At first, I was very skeptical. I thought Occupy Wall Street seemed to be a vague, wooly-headed movement without any specific ideas or demands. But, in retrospect, I think I was wrong. The lack of specific proposals proved to be a strength. The simple emphasis on “We are the 99 percent” helped to finally make a national issue out of one of the biggest developments in American life: the fact that almost all the economic growth of the past thirty years has benefitted the most affluent in our country, the top one percent. It has been important because it has changed the general political conversation a bit. Until Occupy Wall Street, the right wing, the Tea Party Movement, was channeling all the discontent in the country so that, ironically, anger against Wall Street, against the economic crisis, against the fact that the financial industry has paid almost no price for the financial mess, was benefitting the Republican Party, the party that helped create the disaster and has fought to prevent reforms of the banking industry and to make sure that the wealthiest benefit overwhelmingly from tax cuts. Occupy Wall Street seems to have affected President Obama and moved him to embrace a more populist message.
KZ: You’ve usually spoken of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi critically. What are the main reasons you dislike him? Though, as a foreign observer, it’s quite understandable to me that you as a conscious Italian citizen should be frustrated at Berlusconi’s policies. However, I want you, to tell us more about your grievances at Berlusconi and the way he handled the Italian politics in his 10 years of ruling the country.
AS: My opposition to Berlusconi does not stem from personal dislike – although I cannot pretend to like him. The problem with Berlusconi is structural and deeply political: from the moment he entered politics it was perfectly obvious to me – and should have been to most Italians – (I am not an Italian citizen) – that allowing someone who was the largest media owner in the country, Italy’s richest man with a virtual monopoly of private television to also be simultaneously the prime minister with control over the state broadcasting system, his principal competitor, and the other major source of public information, would result in a total disaster for Italy and its political system.
Nothing – nothing – that has happened in the last eighteen years has shaken that conviction by even a jot. The presence of someone with so many powerful and extensive private interests – not only in the media – but in finance, real estate, and a wide range of fields – running the country, it was bound to lead to favoritism, self-dealing, protectionism and a system of special interests entirely contrary to the workings of a modern economy. The fact that Berlusconi’s company was deeply embedded in a corrupt political system, with a checkered past of bribery and corruption, meant that he would have to derail a whole process of reform and housecleaning that was taking place in Italy. But Berlusconi went beyond even the most pessimistic predictions by elevating self-dealing to a whole new level, placing showgirls and girl friends, personal friends in parliament or elsewhere in government, taking Italy backwards hundreds of years, as if it were a European monarchy of the 18th century or an Ottoman sultanate of centuries ago.
KZ: Italy is a European country and we’ve conventionally heard that the European nations are at their best state in terms of press freedom and unrestricted flow of information by the independent media. However, Silvio Berlusconi had formed a media conglomerate in Italy while he was in power and controlled the majority of influential press and TV channels in the country. Wasn’t this state dominance over the media contrary to the democratic values of the West? Why hadn’t the other EU countries showed any sign of protest against and dissatisfaction with Berlusconi’s media stronghold?
AS: The lack of protest in Europe surprised and disappointed me, but it, in some ways, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Europe didn’t protest when hardly anyone in Italy protested. Many people opposed Berlusconi on political grounds but even many on the left in Italy failed to understand the implications of so much control of the media.
KZ: On July 16, 2010, you published an article in Foreign Policy about the incarceration of members of mafia in Milan, Sicily and other Italian cities and the reactions of the American media to the mass arrests. Would you please give us an insight of the activities of organized crime groups in Italy? Why had the American media reacted to the event in such a derogatory way? Do the Italian politicians still maintain ties with the members of mafia and other organized crime groups in the country?
AS: I was not aware that the American had treated these arrests in a derogatory way. I certainly hope I didn’t. I applauded the arrests and admire the prosecutors and police who planned and carried out the investigation and arrests. The larger problem, however, is that for a series of reasons Italy has allowed about one-third of its territory to be heavily dominated by organized crime. Political convenience, corruption and the extreme difficulties of creating a healthy economy in that part of the country have contributed. Yes, politicians do maintain ties with organized crime groups. One of Berlusconi’s closest friends and closest aides was convicted of collusion with the mafia.
KZ: And finally, what’s your viewpoint regarding the future of print journalism in the 21st century? Do you think that with the emergence of digital media and the growth of social networks, the traditional outlets such as papers and books will be consigned to oblivion or lose their importance? Actually, will the development of digital media such as blogs, podcasts and Twitter lead to the marginalization of traditional media?
AS: We are still in the very early stages of a change that is every bit as fundamental as the invention of print in the 15th century, which changed almost everything in the world at that time. Without print, it would be difficult to imagine industrialization, mass education, and many other features of the modern world. Digital media in the short term have produced a set of contradictory results. They have undermined the economic basis of old media – the print newspaper and magazine – which were fundamental to the print revolution. But they have also brought forth other new forms of media. They have connected and empowered hundreds of millions of people – my communicating with you now in Iran – for example – which could have taken place only with great difficulty in the past. They have given access to so much more information and turned hundreds of millions of people from passive subjects and consumers of information into active producers of information as well. These are good things. We see citizens in many countries rising up against oppression, corruption and dictatorships in many countries, using new media to spread information, document government violence and oppression. I still think there is a role for traditional media. Not necessarily in the form it has taken in the best. But I think that precisely because we are overwhelmed by an excess of information – some of it false or of poor quality – for there to be professionally gathered information, professionally edited publications which have standards in terms of sources and documentation and which are seen as reliable by readers or viewers.