2016 Scholarship Winner – Roberto Capocelli

Roberto_Capocelli2nd Place Award $5,000

Roberto Capocelli is a journalist, master’s candidate at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York, and a Fulbright scholar.

After graduating with a master’s degree in communication from La Sapienza, University of Rome in 2005, he continued his postgraduate studies in journalism and criminology.

He started out as a freelance reporter in 2002, traveling to the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada uprising.

Roberto has traveled and worked in several countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, the UK and Colombia, where he worked as a human rights officer for the NGO Peace Brigades International. After this experience he produced and filmed a documentary on gold mining in Colombia.

In 2012, he landed at the newspaper Avanti! covering Italian politics. In the same year Roberto received an award from the newspaper La Repubblica and was selected to attend the video journalism school, La Repubblica Academy.

Additionally, in 2014 he worked as a public information officer for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Winning Op-Ed

A presidential campaign is a big, collective narrative.

“Successful campaigns tell a story” and “good stories win,” said Mark McKinnon, a veteran campaign strategist for both Republicans and Democrats.

If McKinnon’s theory embodies a deep truth, we should also consider that, while offering competing stories, candidates, taken together, shed light on a nation’s politics.

In November it will become clear who is the hero and who the villain of this story. What we already know is that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the two faces of a new political sensibility centered on the struggle between the “establishment” and the “anti-establishment.”

The j’accuse of these anti-establishment candidates arises from very different perspectives though: Trump’s “make America great again” hints at the restoration of a lost equilibrium, while Sanders’s “political revolution” promises a transformation. As Arianna Huffington points out in an interview on the Italian edition of The Huffington Post, it would be “a terrible mistake” to associate Trump and Sanders with each other: the first is a divisive, dangerous force nourished by uncertainty, she says, the second represents the aspirations of the Millennials to a more equal and less divided society.

In the same interview Huffington describes Trump’s rise as “the failure of the entire establishment, which did not understand the fears and anxieties of millions of Americans,” adding: “the media treat Trump as a legitimate candidate when he is not. Even if he boosted the audience.”

Her complaint echoes the received wisdom that the media is the usual suspect when it comes to amplifying these anti-establishment sentiments, in particular that of Donald Trump, who seems to be the real dominator of the scene.

Soon after the real-estate tycoon announced his candidacy in July 2015, Perry Bacon Jr., a political reporter for NBC news, declared that “Donald Trump’s surge in the Republican primary is being helped by an unlikely ally: the press.”

As an Italian, I find that this refrain is nothing new: I can still smell the cigarette butts overflowing from the ashtrays in the student lounge of my university, in Rome, after hours of discussions over the role of Silvio Berlusconi’s media holdings in his reelection as a Prime Minister. It happened in 2001 and again in 2006.

Already, major U.S. media outlets, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN, have drawn a parallel between trump and Berlusconi.

That is one reason the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign makes me feel at home.

But it is not the only reason. The polarization animating the unfolding presidential campaign seems like a déjà vu to the Italian audience.

For 20 years the pro- and the anti-Berlusconi factions dominated political debate in Italy as well as the media coverage. More than programs and proposals, the very core dispute was over something not really defined, but felt deeply. When Berlusconi’s government fell, “politics” versus “anti-politics” became the new fault line organizing the political debate.

In Corriere della Sera, the influential French intellectual Bernard Henry-Levi defined Trump as the leader of an “international coalition of vulgarity,” in the same class as Putin, Berlusconi and France’s Marine Le Pen.

When I say “polarization,” I am not talking about politics. I am talking about that undefined sentiment of antagonism often resulting from moments of deep transformation. As it was the case for Italy 20 years ago, there are structural reasons for the surge of the anti-establishment sentiment.

Shifting demographics, increasing inequality, global market volatility and suspicion with gridlock in Washington create the new audience for the new narration.

As another U.S. correspondent for La Repubblica, Federico Rampini, said in in a recent article, “it is all America that has to choose between two ways of being a nation.”

In a time of uncertainty caused by a radical transformation, simple narrative might gain the upper hand. Italians look at this reality with a sense of inevitability and fatalism.

The U.S. correspondent and director of the online version of La Repubblica, Vittorio Zucconi, talks about “Trump’s spaghetti western.” This gives a glimpse of what the Italian audience’s perspective on the U.S. election process might be: the American version of a movie seen before.

But in deciding whether the media are escalating the polarization we must remember that, in Italy as in the U.S., the storytellers are the map-drawers. And “the map is not the territory,” as the semanticist Alfred Korzybski said in 1931.

Again, narrative is generated first and foremost by the audience.

In fact, in the 2016 U.S. campaign, the media, in a significant number of cases, have done an excellent job of highlighting the contradictions and the inconsistency of some of those narratives. The question is how many people are there to listen.