BROOKE GLADSTONE: Silvio Berlusconi has been Italy's prime minister for the past four years. He's also the man who owns and controls 90 percent of Italy's television stations and a major publishing house, plus national papers and magazines. For the most part, Italians and Italian journalists, have quietly put up with this near media monopoly - until now. As Megan Williams reports from Rome, the political tide may be turning for Silvio Berlusconi, and it seems this time, TV isn't keeping him afloat.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Silvio Berlusconi's political and media power is extravagant by any measure, but it hasn't been enough for Italy's billionaire prime minister himself. When journalists bring to light unpleasant facts, such as his association with the Mafia, charges against him for bribing judges, and his tailor-made laws to get him and friends off the legal hook, he doesn't like it.
DAVID LANE: The cover page of The Economist on the 28th of April was: Why Silvio Berlusconi Is Unfit to Lead Italy. It made him extremely unhappy, and he sued.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: David Lane is the man who wrote that article. It chronicled many of Berlusconi's shady dealings. Four years later, he's still involved in the lawsuit against the magazine for publishing it. Lane says Italy's leader is an egomaniac with no concept of the importance of a critical press to a healthy democracy. What makes Berlusconi worse, says Lane, is his belief that he's the victim of a political witch hunt.
DAVID LANE: He's always maintained that the foreign press is in league with the center-left opposition, and despite the fact that The Economist is a notoriously right wing magazine, he seems to believe that we, in common with other newspapers and, and magazines from outside Italy are out to get him. [ITALIAN-STYLE MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: In his first appearance as prime minister on the public network that he now controls, La RAI, he says the plot against him doesn't stop with left wingers and the foreign press. It includes - well, almost everyone. [SILVIO BERLUSCONI BEING INTRODUCED IN ITALIAN, TO APPLAUSE] [SILVIO BERLUSCONI SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
INTERPRETER: I have always contended that there is the official state, and then a parallel state made up of powerful segments of society that are in the hands of the left. They include high schools, universities, newspapers, radios, television, judges, the Constitutional Court, and I'll stop here, simply to be charitable to my homeland. Some Italians understand this, but the rest need to see this too.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Berlusconi goes even further. He says that, with the exception of one newscaster, Emilio Fede, a notorious Berlusconi cheerleader, his TV stations are unpartisan. [BERLUSCONI SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
INTERPRETER: The fact that I'm an owner of a TV has no bearing on electoral politics. In fact, the journalists who work for my TV stations aren't biased, with the exception of "Saint" Emilio Fede, who's been a hero on a desert island and who at least offers some balance to the three terrible state-run stations that do nothing but ferociously attack their political opponents. And let me just say one thing. On TV channels that I and my family own, there has never been partisan reporting. Never. Never! Never, never. There's never been attacks on my political rivals.
TOMASO DE BENEDETTI: It's an amazing lie, because Berlusconi, last year, had fired from the public television, from the RAI important Italian journalists as Michaeli Santoro, as Enzo Biagi.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Media commentator Tomaso de Benedetti says Berlusconi's favorite method of silencing critics is by firing them. But he's also turned to the courts to put a chill on political debate here.
GIOVANNI VALENTINI: I think that Berlusconi is an international anomaly.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Giovanni Valentini is one of the journalists being sued by Berlusconi for an article on Berlusconi and advertising, where he pointed out the prime minister's conflict of interest in pocketing more than 3 million dollars from TV ads a year.
GIOVANNI VALENTINI: Don't forget that he is the strongest political man in the - Europe. One thousand times more rich than the American president.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Valentini writes for La Repubblica, one of the few dailies that has dared to speak out against Berlusconi. One of the reasons? It's owned by Carlo de Benedetti who once tried to buy the second largest publishing house in Italy, Manda d'Ore. Instead, says David Lane, Berlusconi took control of it through bribing judges. But newspapers themselves aren't that influential. The two main papers openly critical of Italy's leader, La Repubblica and L'Unita, have a combined circulation of less than 800,000. The real power lies in television. [WOMAN SPEAKING IN SULTRY TONES] [MUSIC, APPLAUSE] Berlusconi's three privately owned channels are renowned for combining fluffy entertainment with fawning political talk shows. This lightweight fun and games combo, says Giovanni Valentini, has been key to swaying a lot of voters.
GIOVANNI VALENTINI: And we know that about six percent of the electors votes under the television influence. This six percent is about 3 million people, and in the last political elections we have about 600,000 of votes difference between center-left and center-right. This is the problem.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: A problem, yes. But perhaps not as big as critics have feared. Italy held regional elections across the country earlier this month, and the dissatisfaction with Berlusconi and his government was resounding. In 11 of 13 regions, candidates from opposition parties swept into power. With national elections a year away, voters have shown they're no longer so amenable to Berlusconi's self-serving laws and poor handling of the economy. And, says media critic Tomaso de Benedetti, this time even surprise appearances on TV aren't helping.
TOMASO DE BENEDETTI: Berlusconi now is over-exposed, and credibility of Mr. Berlusconi is really, really weak.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But it's not just a question of over-exposure. As Giovanni Valentini says, promotion only works if the product is good.
GIOVANNI VALENTINI: But when the product is not good - is, is bad, television is not enough.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: And, at last, it seems Italians just may be ready to change the channel. [ITALIAN STYLE MUSIC, APPLAUSE] For On the Media, this is Megan Williams in Rome. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the Gray Lady's first public editor looks back on his life and times, and the best coverage of genocide you'll never see.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]