The story behind the story (maybe)

A very useful-sounding term just popped up on my screen the other day, and now I find myself wondering how I possibly could have worked in journalism for all these years without having known it.

The word is dietrologia, an Italian word meaning the "science" - very loosely speaking - of scoping out ulterior motives (actual or imputed), of finding the story behind the story of public events.

It's an informal coinage, from dietro (behind) and logia, the Italian equivalent of the "logy" element of English words, meaning "study," as in "psychology" (study of the mind).

The term appeared in a Monitor Web column on the question of Italian connections to the dubious "intelligence" the US and British governments invoked to bolster the now-discredited claim that Saddam Hussein's agents sought to acquire yellowcake from Niger.

Our column mentioned Henry Farrell, a professor of international studies at George Washington University. He described reports about the Italian intelligence community's involvement in the Niger uranium affair, as "examples of what Italians call dietrologia - a word that loosely translates as the widespread belief that political, security, and criminal forces are constantly engaged in secret plots and maneuvers."

He added, "There is a pervasive [public] belief of dietrologia carried out behind the scenes by powerful, shadowy figures, all more or less incomprehensible except to a few insiders in Rome."

As a term, dietrologia seems to go back a few decades to a period when Italian politics seemed to have more than its share of shadowy political murders - remember the Red Brigades, the murder of Aldo Moro, the mysterious death of Roberto Calvi.

The term has been back in the news just in the past few days, though, as Italians marked 30 years since the death of communist writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Even now, Agence France-Presse reported, Italians speculate whether he was murdered in a political assassination engineered by the conservative government of the day, or by fascists.

"In Italy, there are two great defects. Dietrologia and the love of a mystery," said Carlo Lucarelli, writer of police novels and host of a television show that unravels Italy's real-life mysteries. "But dietrologia is positive when there are clear holes in the investigation and when the people ask themselves if the event didn't happen differently."

Dietrologia is the counterweight to Occam's Razor, the principle that if two otherwise equally valid explanations for something are offered, the one that should be accepted is the simpler.

Some may quibble that dietrologia is of interest to cynics, and it probably is, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't be paying attention, too. At roughly the same time the Italians were practicing their dietrological skills on their politicians, Americans were working through the "long national nightmare" of the Watergate affair - the "third-rate burglary" that ultimately brought down a presidency. Talk about more than meets the eye.

There are any number of situations in Washington today that seem to cry out for dietrological skill. One can't help noticing how many media reports claim to offer not "the real story" per se, but "the story behind the story." And when I noticed the "Behind the News" feature in the Week in Review section of the Sunday New York Times, I thought, this is it: Dietrologia has arrived in the English-speaking world.

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