‘Tanto Sono Donna’ Part II: Misquotation and the Power of Media Manipulation

I spent the better part of yesterday reading about and observing reactions to Alice Sabatini’s gaffe during the Miss Italia pageant, in which the contestant purportedly said the following:

“Vorrei essere nata nel 1942, per vivere la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Sui libri ci sono pagine e pagine, io volevo viverla per davvero, poi essendo donna non avrei nemmeno dovuto fare il militare.” / “I would have liked to be born in 1942, so I could live through the Second World War. Books are full of pages and pages [on the war], and I would have liked to really live through that time, and anyway being a woman, I wouldn’t even have had to fight.”

I watched the video from the pageant in the morning, having just sat down at my desk with my first cup of coffee to get the day’s projects going. As my own personal reaction to Sabatini’s statement began to take shape, I dived into the deluge of online articles already published as of yesterday morning. When I decided to write about the episode, I referred back to the brief article I’d read first on Huffington Post Italia’s website. I copied the direct quote of Sabatini’s words verbatim—the quote above, to be precise—and dropped them into my draft for contemplation and reference as I proceeded.

While scanning social media outlets throughout the day, I saw that much had been made about the first portion of her comment, in which she said she would have liked to be born in 1942. For some people, this statement clearly did not reflect the young woman’s intended meaning; and surely the context and common sense made the takeaway obvious: Sabatini meant she would have liked to be living in 1942. To others, however, these words, even if not a precise reflection of the speaker’s intent, implied a gross misapprehension of the war period or at least paved the way for further doubt come the remainder of her response, that part about being a woman and not having to fight and staying home without fear—inaccurate, in light of the role of women in the Italian Resistance.

Today someone asked me about this on Facebook. Curious, I went back through the original articles I’d read, then did a search of what’s been published since last night. I discovered something rather disturbing. Even more intrigued, I went back and watched the video again. It turns out, Sabatini never actually said Vorrei essere nata nel 1942, as reported by many, many sources (yours truly among them). Here is her actual statement, transcribed word for word:

“…nel ’42…millenovecento….per vedere realmente la Seconda Guerra Mondiale; visto che i libri parlano…hanno pagine e pagine…la voglio vivere, però tanto sono donna quindi il militare non l’avrei fatto…sarei stata a casa…” / “...in ’42…nineteen hundred…to really see the Second World War, since books talk [about the war]…they have pages and pages…I want to live it, but anyway I’m a woman and so I would not have had to fight…I would have been at home….”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, what seems to have offended people most is the later part, regarding what women would or would not have been doing during the war, together with an overall naïve, idealized view of war that Sabatini’s words manage to impress upon us, whatever her true intent.  But what I’m more concerned with here in this follow up is just how many sources misquoted Sabatini.  Here is a (not exhaustive) list of sources that directly quoted Sabatini yesterday and today, in article headlines or body or both, as having said Vorrei essere nata nel ‘42:

 L’Huffington Post
Corriere della Sera
Nuova Società
Giornalettismo
Adnkronos
Newsly
Il Giornale
GQ.com
La stampa
TGCOM
Blitz Quotidiano
Il Terreno
Blasting News

Many more sources quoted Sabatini as saying “Avrei voluto vivere nel ‘42″ / “I would have liked to live in 1942”, which is closer to an accurate quote but is also not, it should be noted, what she actually said. I located one source that quoted her almost accurately, by starting with “…nel ’42…”.

Living as we do in this era of sloppy, lightning-fast communication, I imagine it rarely occurs to the average news consumer to double-check facts or even apply a bit of scepticism from time to time. I am aware of this (and am hardly the first to make the observation) and yet I was, frankly, astonished at how quickly Sabatini’s words created an almost witch-hunt-like atmosphere on social media. Despite the humor and (always welcome) Italian flair characterizing many of yesterday’s new-born memes, at the core of this story is both our facile interaction with what we read and the swift power of media to shape public opinion. In this specific case, it has been the power to transform our assessment of Sabatini from not-exactly-brilliant public speaker to utter half-wit.

Meanwhile, attacks on Sabatini continued today after her comments last night on the comedy program Striscia la Notizia, which surprised Sabatini to award her their famous Tapiro d’Oro (gold tapir), a satirical recognition for public blunders and screw-ups committed by movie stars, politicians, athletes, et al.  When asked which Italian historical figure she admires, Sabatini responded, after a long, awkward and bemused pause, Michael Jordan (she plays basketball).  The reaction? A Google News search for Alice Sabatini + Michael Jordan returned over 650 hits.

I’m hoping to see this addressed by some intrepid Italian journalist, or anyone who writes in Italian, honestly. Consider that up until two days ago no one in Italy saw this young woman as anything more than a beautiful distraction, and today thousands are participating in her verbal battering with a disquietingly Schadenfreude-esque enthusiasm. An examination of how the media is portraying—and to great extent misrepresenting—the ‘Miss Italia mess’ may not remove the stigma of ignorance Sabatini has incurred, yet it might stem the backlash tide, which is probably what is needed right about now. See below.

I would like to live during the Second World War. Anyway I'm a woman - I'll be safe.

I would like to live during the Second World War. Anyway I’m a woman – I’ll be safe.

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