Silvio Berlusconi, mayor of New York City? If a sex-based scandal could not prevent the comeback of Anthony Weiner, now a serious contender for City Hall, surely the ultra-rich former prime minister of Italy could overcome his own saucy troubles and win another big election.
The story that Berlusconi was thinking of running for office broke Monday morning in The New Yorker: “Mr. Berlusconi announced his intentions after several local polls showed him with a higher approval rating than the candidates currently on offer in the city,” said the weekly magazine.
“In Italy, you make one little mistake, they throw you in jail seven years,” he said according to the U.S. magazine. “New Yorkers are much more forgiving.” (Because of lengthy appeals, he isn’t really going to prison despite being sentenced last month to those seven years for, among other things, patronizing an underage prostitute, at his infamous “bunga bunga” parties. But let’s not nitpick.)
Well, in fact he may be leaning toward another office, say that of public advocate: “‘Once they see how good Silvio does at that, they make him mayor or governor, no?’” he said, with a booming laugh,” reported the New Yorker.
Italian news magazine Panorama did not waste any time pouncing on the story. The weekly’s web site aggregated the New Yorker piece shortly after it appeared.
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But there was a small problem: None of it is true. Berlusconi is not running for office in New York. The New Yorker piece was by noted humorist Andy Borowitz -- something that the anonymous writer of the Panorama piece should have known, since he quoted the “famoso blog satirico.” Yet, the story was reported as perfectly factual. (Complete with improperly translated Berlusconi quotes and the transforming of "mayor" into "major" when attempting to cite the English name of the office he might stand for.)
And that’s not all. Who owns Panorama, the country’s largest news magazine? Yes, you guessed right: Silvio Berlusconi does. It's a unit of Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA (BIT:MN), a publishing conglomerate that Berlusconi bought after a protracted legal battle in the 1990s, in which he was found to have bribed a judge.
The billionaire tycoon’s own publication was fooled by an obviously fake, hilarious spoof about its very owner running for office in New York City. This despite the small detail that Berlusconi, not being a U.S. citizen, is ineligible to run in any American election. Or the other small matter that he has never resided in New York City. (But his niece Luna did, for an internship during which she learned, as she herself put it, that “making photocopies is hard.”)
Not to toot my own horn, but I knew this would happen, and tweeted about it on Monday morning. Sure enough, I had to wait just a couple of hours.
How long before an Italian newspaper aggregates Borowitz on Berlusconi thinking it's for real? http://t.co/PPMasBChhy)
â€” Alberto Riva (@Albertoriva) July 8, 2013
I began my career as a journalist in Italy, and I knew someone in the press there would swallow the Borowitz bait -- hook, line and sinker, no questions asked. Why? I was pretty sure that the Italian media’s tendency to worship anything that comes from “famous” English-language outlets -- known collectively as “the Anglo-Saxon press” -- plus the juicy potential of the Berlusconi name, and the unwillingness of many Italian journalists to verify sources, would produce exactly what happened.
I just could not imagine that the culprit, of all people, would be Berlusconi’s own magazine.
(Edit: The original version of the Panorama story did not even note that Borowitz was a satirical author. Italian news website Giornalettismo showed a cached copy of the story proving that the adjective "satirical" was appended in a later correction. But the story was not changed otherwise, and remained a straight report -- even after people on Twitter derided Panorama for reporting satire as truth.)