Corruption Scandals and Political Crises: The 'Free Press' and Democracy in Italy
34 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2013
Date Written: 2012
In this paper we illustrate the politicized role of the media through an analysis of Italy’s political crisis of the early 1990s. We show that the political affiliations of media outlets correlates with very different patterns of coverage of Italy’s corruption scandal. Even predating Silvio Berlusconi’s entry into the television media market, the politicization of the media is evident. We then look at some broader comparative evidence on the role of the media in democracy to suggest that media bias is systematic in democracies and that expectations of a balancing out of these biases is misplaced.
Corruption scandals are often cited as a major cause of the demise of political parties or, in extreme cases, even whole party systems. Chang, Golden, and Hill developed this argument in the case of the collapse of the Italian First Republic. The DC and with it the Italian First Republic were erased from the political map by 1994. The interpretation given to these events by Chang et al. is that through its watchdog role, the media constrained the abuse of power and cleansed Italian democracy of its corruption (even if temporarily). But how accurate is this interpretation, both in terms of the specifics of the Italian case and in terms of the general relationship between the media and democracy? In the Italian case, many details of the story are accurate. However, the conclusion drawn from this raw data is misleading. Chang et al. treat the media’s discovery and publicization of political corruption as exogenous to the dynamics of the Italian party system. However, the Italian media’s revelations of the Tangentopoli scandal cannot be treated in this way. This reinterpretation raises a problem for our understanding of the relationship between the media and democracy more generally. It is simply naïve to assume that the media is an impartial purveyor of information. Rather, the media is better seen as the mouthpiece of other political agents.
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