OPINION

Irresponsible

Greek newspapers, while having no aversion to gossip and conflict, have not done themselves and their readers the favor of offering even more gossip and bias by running regular columns on the news media, such as those found in American and British newspapers. This is sad, not least because it deprives everyone of a good read. These columns offer a fascinating look into the innards of the news media and the people who churn about inside them, as well as those affected by them. The insider gossip, the condescension and derision that accompany the revelations of what goes into the daily sausage also serve to keep journalists and publishers in line to some extent, in the understanding that they are subject to the loud and public judgment of their peers. Such a feature in the Greek press would help deflate many bubbles. It would also lead, inevitably, to blood feuds and ink-stained duels that could, in turn, lead to a merciful reduction in self-importance. If journalists could be found who had the rare merit of combining objective observation with a death wish, a forum of such animated debate could lead to improvements in our reporting. But even if the effort fails, there will be enough blood in the arena to make the entertainment worthwhile. Everyone loves a good fight. The few «media columns» that do exist in Greece are simply a list of hirings and firings and guided leaks serving some or other publisher’s interests. They are not signed commentaries by journalists whose brief it is to specialize in developments in the news media and thereby hold their colleagues up to a standard of acceptable behavior. Then again, Greek newspapers do not need any of this. They have the US State Department. Once again, apparently indifferent to the law of unintended consequences, the American diplomatic machine has managed to plunge itself into a hornet’s nest without really trying. Updating the background note on Greece that appears on its its website (http:// www.state.gov//pa/ei/bgn/3395.htm), probably to reflect changes of guard at the US Embassy in Athens, the State Department made some very pertinent observations about the Greek news media – which, if I remember correctly, existed in the previous version as well. (In fact, the Greek government spokesman commented that the observations were old, perhaps suggesting they were once valid but now irrelevant.) Once again, American high-handedness triggered the perennial touchiness of the Greeks. «The Greek media constitute a very influential institution – usually aggressive, sensationalist and frequently irresponsible with regard to content,» the report noted. Apparently getting his or her own back after years of fielding abuse, the author added gleefully, «Objectivity as known to the US media on the whole does not exist in the Greek media.» Of course, if Greek newspapers had their own media columns there would be nothing new in these observations, as we would already have seen in writing what is common knowledge to all. But it is always irritating to have someone else pronounce judgment on you or your kind from on high. It is particularly grating when, irrespective of the accuracy of the observation, it comes as a judgment against which there is no appeal and whose influence goes far beyond the confines of the insular little world in which the Greek media operate. So an observation by a US diplomat, intended to provide detailed background information on a range of issues concerning Greece – and which makes a number of very astute observations – becomes another (comparatively small) bump in the long and bumpy road of Greek-US relations. This is one of those cases in which someone writes something for a specific audience only to find that it creates an uproar in another. The Greek news media know all about this, having provoked their fair share of controversy by writing outrageous things for their Greek audience but which sometimes find their way abroad, leading to angry reactions. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this little storm in a teacup is the reference to the abstract concept of responsibility. What does it mean to be «irresponsible with regard to content»? Do Greek reporters not check their facts, do they draw conclusions on the basis of previous bias, or do they prune the news in accordance with a hidden (or blatant) agenda? Does it mean that Greek journalists do not tell both sides of the story, that their work is unfair and unbalanced? Any one of these would constitute a failure in responsibility in that readers, viewers and listeners can be misled into drawing mistaken conclusions from the information that they receive. Or does the issue of responsibility imply that the Greek media are unfair to the subjects that they cover, such as US policy? In all these cases, the newspaper or other news medium would obviously be failing in its responsibility to inform (just as the State Department notes themselves shirk the responsibility of explaining what their author means). All of these are mortal sins for journalists but they are also the context in which the news media operate in many parts of the world. This results in the ghettoization of ideas, in which like-minded individuals gather around the words of the preacher whom they trust and who confirms their distorted picture of the world, strengthening their convictions on the basis of distorted information. Without honest and objective policing by the news media themselves, the only response to this is the one we have: an equal and opposite reaction, or ever greater partisanship. The media split along ideological lines and become fortresses for each side. The faithful can be soothed by the knowledge that they are one with like-minded warriors behind walls that offer protection and from which they conduct attacks on their opposition. From here on, everything the group does is aimed at reinforcing its own complacency and undermining the morale and credibility of the other side. In this case, journalists might as well wear the uniform of the militia that they serve. Divisive politics have been a feature of Greece since the country gained its independence in the early 19th century. It was natural that the press should be partisan. But this «understandable» situation became a structural weakness that undermined the creation of a more civil society and kept Greece from developing a culture of healthy criticism. Having formed this dependence on division, when ideologies collapsed over the past decade, the news media remained frozen in their old stances, fawning and scowling at the same time, maintaining mostly exclusive relationships with political parties, trying to remain political players, but also offering their services to the rich, the powerful and the grasping. We have learned to live with the poison, shrugging off the excesses of our press. We form passionate opinions on the basis of faulty information, even though we may guess that things may not be exactly as we are told they are. It’s part of our crazy social and political theater in which truth and fiction become one and we pick and choose to believe what best serves our interests. We know this; we live with it as if it is an inescapable fact of life. It’s as if we are all fans of some or other soccer team. We care madly for the progress of our own at the expense of the others. We don’t care whether our teams play well or whether the league falls apart. All we want is for our team to win. It is the primordial principle of helping friends and harming enemies. The problem, though, is that this system can function only if society is split between friends and enemies. So the system perpetuates itself. A partisan press is created by rifts, it causes them in turn and then has to maintain them so as to keep itself relevant. Whatever could be common ground between the two turns into a battleground, or the void. No news medium can be entirely objective or free of self-interest. They are either state-owned or have to make a profit. Both cases affect the final result. In some countries this is more evident than in others. In Greece we tend to see the US press as being at the other end of the scale. Now increasing partisanship in the United States is leading to more cheering and more jeering than we were used to. As the Americans already have a vibrant tradition of media criticism, we’ll be watching to see if media columnists are up to the task of keeping their newspapers, television, radio stations and Internet sites «responsible» – or whether the State Department will have to step in there too.