By Michele Travierso

One would think, maybe callously, that Japan's earthquake-cum-tsunami-cum-nuclear crisis would provide more than enough stories to report. Alas, the scale of the tragedy is so big, that it would be impossible to NOT find a millions little stories worth reporting. 

We've all read about it: to tackle the nuclear crisis that emerged at Fukushima Daichii plant, the electric company send a team of fifty brave employees to prop up the emergency repairs that would stop a potentially grave nuclear leak. It's a risky endeavor. The government has decided that the "Fukushima Fifty" shall remain nameless.

Why, then, a journalist from one of the major Italian newspapers gave a name and the story of one of the workers?

Because everybody likes a hero. And a hero needs a name.

According to La Repubblica (link in Italian), Futoshi Toba, a 59-year-old worker close to retirement, that apparently doesn't even know the crippled reactor 4 at all, offers himself as volunteer to spare the life of a younger worker, in the fight "to avoid the Fukushima plant explosion, that would destroy Japan" (emphasis is mine).

It's a brave gesture, but that probably wastes precious time that somebody with actual knowledge of the plant could have used prolifically. Be that as it may, the worker now lies in hospital, in critical condition, but he decides to address the nation and to incite its fellow countrymen to ponder on the future of the nuclear technology. The story gets an awful lot of play. But I bet you never heard of it.

After a few minutes on a search engine you'd notice that the story was widely circulated (here's a good summary of the situation), yes, but only in Italy. The international press, all of it, says that Futoshi Toba is the name of the mayor of Rikuzentakata, a coastal town in the Iwate prefecture that was almost literally wiped off the map. His wife disappeared in the dark tsunami waters. 

Now, consider this other story. 

In February 2010, a journalist from the same newspaper, La Repubblica, was interwieving Philip Roth. The journalist asked him about some remarkably strong anti-Obama comments, appeared in an interview that he had given to an Italian conservative newspaper "Libero" a few months earlier, to freelance journalist Tommaso Debenedetti. 

Philip Roth fell from a tree. He claimed to have never said anything to that tone. Roth himself, the journalist that interviewed him that day (for real), and a New Yorker writer looked into the matter.  

The fake interviews, a genre in itself, got some play in Italy and in England, but it was the New Yorker that got to the case with a certain eagerness (here's a list of the stories published on the subject). Those newspapers editors are (willing?) accomplices as Debenedetti, whom is the nephew of one of the Italy's most respected literary critics, claims he was asked little or no proof or detail on how these interviews took place and he said to El Pais, the Spanish daily, that editors at "Libero" knew. Fact checking, in most publications, is seen as a fanciful luxury. Here's from one of the New Yorker pieces on him:

"Italy is a joke," he said. "Information in this country is based on falsehoods." He made fun of La Nazione [a provincal paper] for believing his story that he had had obtained an "exclusive" interview with "the Homer of the Caribbean," Derek Walcott, hiding under a table in Saint Lucia on the day of the Haitian earthquake. "Didn't it seem strange to them?" he asked wryly.

The list of people he "interviewed", besides Roth, includes names such as John Grisham, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Herta Müller and many, many others. They all deny speaking with him, according to the New Yorker.

Debenedetti initially stood by his story and denied fabricating the interviews, but he later confessed and now takes pride in his creations.

It is the quintessential chicken and egg problem. Are Italy's disastrous political landscape and the growing international irrelevance the result of a declining quality -- and therefore influence -- of the press or just its consequence?

To put it like Luca Sofri, journalist and founder of "il Post" -- the Italian response to HuffPo -- "Italy was a democracy, but it became a demagogy". The readers, somebody inferred, wanted a hero with a name and a story, they wanted a Roth critical of Obama. They got it. Who would check anyway?  

Talk about the literary journalism or of the novelization of the press. 

In Italy we still have some time to go before reaching our China Daily -- style "happiness abounds as country cheers"** moment. But I wonder exactly how much.

* It's no coincidence that the long post from which I lifted the quote actually links back to our blog-landlord's recent article on the future of journalism.

** Long time readers of this blog will know that, together with boiling frogs, "happiness abounds" is one of Fallows's pet peeves. I do share the fascination with this headline.

Michele Travierso is a writer/entrepreneur with a thing for airplanes, tech, travel and mountains. Oh, and photography.