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Lemann: Journalists Losing Political Influence


Journalists are rapidly becoming less influential in the realm of politics, Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, cautioned recently in a forum addressing the role of media in democracies. His remarks were at the very heart of the Italian Academy 's Dec. 4 panel discussion, "Democracy and Information: Truth, Politics and the Press," featuring noted journalists and academics from the United States and Italy . The program was moderated by Provost Alan Brinkley.

Drawing on his experience as the Washington, D.C., reporter for The New Yorker , Lemann went on to say, however, that it would be misleading to think that the media are to blame for the shortcomings of politics.

"Politics is not dependent on the press," he said. As an example, Lemann cited the popularity of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who he argues was a Democratic frontrunner not because of the press, but rather because Dean found ways to mobilize voters directly, particularly through the Internet.

In Italy , however, the relationship between the press and government is different, because Italy 's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi heads a vast media empire (Berlusconi personally controls the three largest television networks, daily newspapers and book and magazine publishers). Alexander Stille, a Columbia Journalism alumnus and editor of Correspondence , a newsletter published by the Council on Foreign Relations, said that "Berlusconi's entrance into the political scene has posed a really huge new problem for Italian democracy.

"If you combine the roles of George Bush with congressional leaders Bill Frist and Dick Armey, the media power of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, the money of Ross Perot, Steve Forbes and possibly even Bill Gates, the real estate and personal mojo of Donald Trump, you begin to get an idea of the power and the shadow Berlusconi casts on Italian life," he continued.

Stille warned that while Berlusconi's influence is extraordinary, the issues of media control are hardly unique to Italy . Other countries, including the United States , are seeing a growing concentration of media into conglomerates.

Gianni Riotta, a journalist with Corriere della Sera and an alumnus of the School of Journalism, said many of the same issues being debated today were argued 20 years ago when he was a student at Columbia, especially the role of media in a democratic society. He indicated that the public trust of the media has grown weaker, partially because of the media obsession with scandals.

In concluding, Brinkley surmised that the panelists, who also included Angelo Panebianco, professor at the University of Bologna; Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation ; and Roberto Zaccaria, professor at the Universita di Firenze, generally concurred that the media were doing a poor job in both the United States and Italy and that improvements were necessary.

To that end, Lemann added that the press must realize that its fortune depends on an active, healthy public life, and media need to reach out and build audiences to ensure long-term sustainability.

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Published: Mar 1, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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