Interviews July/August 2006

The Journalist and the Murderer

Douglas Preston discusses his investigation of the "Monster of Florence"—and the strange plot twist that made him a suspect in the case

The relationships between the journalists and their sources and the police in Italy sound looser than they are in the United States. Is it common for Italian journalists to put together the facts the way you and Spezi did? Was the extent of your involvement in this investigation usual?

To answer your first question, yes, journalistic standards are much looser in Italy. And the idea of fact checking, which of course good American magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker are meticulous about, is completely unknown in Italy. The writer is just trusted that he got his facts straight. A lot of the time he didn’t. Journalists rush in. They grab a bagful of current facts and then try to make a story out of them. But if that bagful of current facts is only a tiny slice of an enormously bigger story then it’s very difficult for a journalist to even understand what he’s writing about.

In Italy, you read all these articles about the Monster case, and none of them even comes close to being true, because most journalists just do not have time to really understand the whole thing. We’re talking about a case that has lasted 40 years, with 100,000 people investigated, 14 killings, many, many different investigators. It’s such a big story that almost all journalists, especially daily newspaper journalists, are simply unable to understand it in order to write about it. So you’ve got tremendously inaccurate stories where the same inaccurate facts are repeated. For example, some stories say there were 16 killings as opposed to 14. I read in the Italian papers as recently as a week ago that the Monster had killed 16 people. Well, the Monster killed 14 people. The first two killings were absolutely determined not to have been done by the Monster.

I’ve heard that a specific section of Italian newspapers is devoted to crime. Are crime stories handled differently in Italy?

Italian newspapers do have a section devoted to crime. They call it the “Cronaca Nera,” the “Black Stories,” or “Black Tales.” The Italian newspapers, like the American newspapers, deal frequently in crime. That’s what people love to read about. It gives them a frisson to open their paper in the morning and read about some mother who has murdered her child. Or some beheaded body found in a field. When I lived in New York City, one day The New York Post had a wonderful headline: HEADLESS MAN FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR. And I thought, “Oh, what a fabulous headline—one of the great crime headlines of all time—ridiculous, absurd, and outrageous. Nobody can walk by that headline and not read that story.” Yes, crime is a very important part of Italian papers.

There’s a symbiotic relationship in Italy between crime journalists and their police counterparts. It’s probably much more than in America because I think that American newspapers really try to keep a distance between their reporters and their sources. None of this “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” But in Italy that’s very common. For example, during the Monster case at one point the prosecutor in the case asked Spezi to publish a false story in the paper as a way to try to trap the Monster.

Did Spezi go along with that?

Very willingly. The story was that one of the victims had survived the shooting and had spoken to the police. In truth, the victim had been killed in the shooting and had not spoken to the police, but they were trying to scare up something, trying to push the Monster into making a false move. And Spezi was happy to do that. It wasn’t considered journalistically unethical. And in return Spezi got information from them under the table. A lot of times the police give journalists information for specific reasons. They want that information to get out in order to further the case that they’re working on. For example, they might put information out to a journalist that they hope will further the investigation.

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