When the police forcibly entered 43-year-old Paulina Fiore’s apartment, they found her lifeless body on the floor of the kitchen, covered in mysterious bruises. The lead detective immediately suspected homicide and ordered an autopsy. But after extensive analysis, the coroner concluded the cause of death was vitamin C deficiency.
In a video appearing on social media, Stephanie Brolo, who sources confirm is a close friend of Paulina, is seen weeping and uttering, “This is all my fault.”
At the offices of my city’s largest newspaper, I sip my third espresso of the morning and finish writing the story. One coffee per story is a good rule to live by. I wish I could teach this to new journalists, but they have their own ways of doing things.
After I finish my third random fatality writeup of the morning, I announce “I’m sick of tabloid journalism!” to the newsroom to no one in particular. The young writers around me ignore me. In the economic downturn in traditional media, they are happy to simply hold a job
Giuseppe, our new Chief Editor, says articles with a topic of either sex or death receive ten times more clicks than any other. The editorial concepts in his head are as blunt as the sales method of a fish seller in the market. I need to endure another month of ambulance chasing until I can focus on another piece of investigative journalism. My lengthy expose of government corruption last month, which filled half the front page of the print edition, received fewer views online than a weekend car crash or a nightclub brawl.
“Max?” Giuseppe is standing in front of my desk. “Why haven’t you interviewed the friend yet?”
“Friend? Friend of whom?”
“Idiot. The ‘It's all my fault’ friend. Young, attractive, trending online?” Giuseppe says this with his voice rising in volume for each word.
“Stephanie Brolo.” I show Giuseppe my memory for detail is flawless. “I didn’t study Political Science to chase after friends of murder victims and suicides.”
“Do it.” He turns around and stomps off. Halfway across the newsroom, he turns back and shouts,“Vitamin C! Focus on the vitamin C. Nutrition stories are good for our advertisers, Max.”
Several reporters type notes into their mobiles. Even an untrained eye can foresee them proposing all types of vitamin stories in tomorrow’s news meeting.
I dial the friend.
“This is Max Serafino. Is this Bianca?”
“Yes,” a female voice says, and hesitates. “Are you with the police?”
“No. I’m with the…” I say the name of the newspaper. With a 137-year history, the name often opens doors.
“I thought the police would be the first to call. What do you want?”
The police in Italy would never bother with something as trivial as a comment on social media. Unless a politician or celebrity was involved.
“I’d like to clarify what you said in the viral video on ItaliaApp.” I mention Italy’s largest social media app.
“That video is ruining my life,” Bianca says.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, everyone misunderstood what I said. I didn’t have anything to do with Paulina’s death. She stopped going out and looked thinner six months ago. Maybe I started her in this direction…”, she catches her breath. “I only called her twice after she stopped seeing me. I should have tried harder, gone to her home…”
“It’s all too much,” she says, “Thanks for calling me, but sorry, I don’t know who you are.”
Abruptly, the mobile screen turns red. She disconnects the WhatsApp call and goes offline.
“Good work on the Paulina interview.” Giuseppe reaches over and picks up one of my antique pencils and massages it between his fingers.
“No problem, boss.” I managed to knit the meager information I was given into a piece about a heartbroken friend and a substantial essay about eating disorders.
“Nice pencil.” He studies the Castelli wooden pencil quixotically. “Max, you are ten years too old for this newsroom. But you are a cat that always lands on its feet.”
“The Tiger of Turin?” I propose. “I’ll accept that as a byline.”
An important sounding moniker is the best I can hope for these days. I recall the Elysian Days of being flown to Rome to interview government ministers, back when traditional newspapers collected all the advertising revenue instead of Google.
When assigned a story, one of the first duties a beat reporter checks off is to contact the family members. I locate Paulina’s father on social media and send an introduction:
This is Max Serafino, a reporter with the Turin Register. I’m writing an article about the unfortunate incident with your daughter and would like to ensure I have all details correct. Please contact me at your earliest convenience.
I receive a reply, which appears to be copied & pasted:
‘We have nothing to say, do not contact us again. -The Fiore Family’
I move on to another breaking story, and the Paulina story goes quiet in the newsroom of the Turin Register for several days.
“Max. Line 7!” someone shouts.
I answer, “City desk, Max Serafino.”
“This is Paulina Fiore’s father,” a man says,“our daughter. It's all our fault. We saw how much time she was spending on her mobile and never stopped her.”
“I’m sure it's not your fault, but I would like to hear more,” I say, “Is there a reason you decided to call me today?”
“The police unlocked her phone, and asked us questions about the websites she was looking at.”
“Do you remember any of the names?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of any of them,” he said, “But most of the articles were about diseases.”
“Was she in contact with anyone?”
“They did say she received the links from friends on the ItaliaApp”
Judging by reports from neighbors, Paulina has not been outside for months. The friends must be online ones.
I call Professor Rizzo at the University of Turin.
“Could fear about disease, viruses and bacteria and so on, cause a patient to suffer from malnutrition?” I ask.
“Mysophobia, commonly called germophobia, can cause a patient to avoid touching food, to eat with gloves, that sort of thing. In problem cases, it may cause patients to limit social interaction and avoid public places.”
“Paulina appeared to be living on a diet of boiled pasta.”
“That sounds possible, but I’ve never heard of malnutrition even in the most extreme cases of Mysophobia. Hunger, including a desire for a mixed diet, is stronger than almost any other psychological urge.”
“But isn’t the urge to survive even stronger?” I conjecture, trying to imagine what the existential threat could be.
How could Paulina completely avoid something so widespread as vitamin C? I update the Chief Editor on my progress on the case.
“This has the workings of a good human interest story, food, fear, a female victim.” Giuseppe looks satisfied. “Keep digging, but steer clear from anything negative about ItaliaApp. They deliver 30% of our incoming traffic.”
I am on speaking terms with many people in our city. People love to talk about themselves to someone who is actively listening. Especially if they perceive them to be in a position of authority.
After graduating university together, Bruno went on a different, more international path than I. Having worked for 15 years in Silicon Valley, he returned to our hometown and was soon snapped up by Italy’s largest social media company. A glimpse at a life I could have lived.
I cancel dinner with my girlfriend Gabrielle to set up a cozy dinner with a 41-year-old man.
On a clear dry evening as dusk descends over Turin as it sits in its valley between the towering Italian Alps on one side and the rolling hills that rise up from the Po river on the other, I walk toward the rectangular bulk of iron lattice that is the old Fiat factory in Lingotto on the south side of the city. The factory, almost a kilometer long, has transformed into offices and a ground floor shopping mall. Now it's popular with high-tech startups, many from America, France and Germany.
The building that was the epicenter of the city when Turin produced half the automobiles of Europe is now filled with people trying to figure out how to sell discount handbags through ecommerce. At least the people of Turin are no longer destined for a life of hard labor as previous generations were.
Paulina lived not far from this building.
At the Osteria del Fiat I’ve asked for a quiet table. I’m disappointed when the host leads us to a very crowded dining room. We pass a large room with only one table of guests. In the circle of suited men , I recognize a retired local politician. In the dark recesses of the city, the power brokers don't like to be overheard.
An hour later after we have finished our own dinner, Bruno takes a large swig of the Dolcetto d’Alba we have been drinking. The obligatory pleasantries and the exchange of information about shared friends has been completed and we can move on to the real meat of the dinner. I explain how Paulina had been accessing his employer's App over 50 times a day.
“At ItaliaApp we focus on returning traffic. Some readers we enchant with glamour, others we addict with fear.”
“Isn’t that manipulation?”
“We are giving people what they want. If they want to hate, they will find it. If they want to love, they will find that too.”
“What about promoting democracy and humanitarian values?”
“That’s just rhetoric for university students. You know that.”
“Paulina Fiore died after gorging on fake news sent to her by ItaliaApp.”
“It’s not our fault it someone can't handle online news. If we don’t send it to them, someone else will.”
“You have become very American in your thinking,” I point out. It's disappointing my old friend can’t see the world the same way we used to, but I’ve become resigned to accept people's differences, politically or otherwise. “The police seem very interested in her social media history,” I add.
Bruno looks at me with renewed interest, “Have the police opened an investigation?”
“Maybe her death is not ItaliaApp’s fault, maybe it's the people who write the fake news. If you can send me her browsing history, the one the police are going through, I’ll take a look and put some spotlight on the fake new producers. That might keep you one step ahead in reacting to negative coverage. I’ll keep your name out of it, of course.”
“I’ll think about it.” Bruno focuses on his red wine glass.
Bruno and I may not see eye to eye, but we have enough shared history to trust we will protect each other's best interests. The next afternoon, I receive Paulina’s browsing history via an encrypted messaging app.
I start clicking through the links:
Italy’s continuing flood of illegal immigrants.
How Covid rises up through ventilation shafts.
The 7 Ways Elevator buttons spread Disease.
Paparazzi capture pictures of Italy’s first Monkeypox patient
Vegetables in our Supermarkets picked by Immigrants Inundated with MonkeyPox Virus.
I scan through months of links about deadly diseases and ways to avoid them. Fake news is a problem and the government has been trying to combat it.
In the thousands of links I scan through, my heart flutters as I spot our name.
“Don’t trust what the government says about Monkey Pox. See attached articles from the Turin Register”
Clicking the link, I see a list of familiar headlines:
The Dark Hand Behind the Government Reshuffle - Max Serafino
Patient Malpractice Allegations Covered up by Health Authorities - Max Serafino
Pandemic Recommendations Misguided - Max Serafino
Corruption Exposed in Turin Government - Max Serafino
Other articles Paulina was reading, those not to trust doctors and government health advice, often link to articles written by me and my colleagues.
I stare at the pencil that sits on my desk where Giuseppe left it earlier. Behind me, I hear someone approach,and feel their hands on my shoulders.
Giuseppe’s voice says, “And you thought you were superior to all of us, didn’t you?”
“Is it all…?” I am about to ask an obvious question. But stop myself. I have bills to pay and a scarcity of other work alternatives. I sweep pointless self-doubt from my mind. Journalists report the news, we do not generate it.
With a click of the mouse, I bring up today's police bulletin, and make proposals on which events we might cover for our prestigious 137-year-old newspaper to the Chief Editor.
The next morning, a young journalist who normally sits besides me struts triumphantly through the news room greeting colleagues. Giuseppe gives him a thumbs up. I open the Turin Register's most viewed list, an online article, "Clickbait News Causes Scurvy in Italy's Auto Capital" is trending across the nation.
I begin having regular dinners with Bruno. We talk about our old adventures in school, and about the state of the country, Bruno reminds me that a Political Science professor in University had taught us, "Every industry is selling a product, and at its core, the news industry sells fear."
In the coming months the number of cases of maltrunition similar to Paulina's snowball across the nation. I notice Bruno starts to eat more and more. I have lost my appetite.