We the media

Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s official working visit to the United States last week was carried out under the dark cloud of Greek anger over a US television report suggesting that members of the ruling PASOK party might be sympathetic to the November 17 terrorist organization. Such a visit is always a major event in any small country’s history – even more so when that country has been dependent on Washington on a large number of important issues over the last half-century – providing its leader with the opportunity to spend some time with the US political leadership and forge (or renew) a bond that will help promote his country’s interests. Some of us may bristle at the thought of our leaders trying to curry favor with the leadership of another country, but the fact is that developments in Greece’s main foreign policy issues depend on the extent to which Washington will support Athens. And the Greeks are completely focused on the extent of that attention, as illustrated by the indignation and concern when it was learned that Vice President Dick Cheney would not meet with Simitis as scheduled (speaking with him instead on the telephone from a secure location). The official reason given was that because of security concerns following September 11 the vice president could not be in Washington at the same time as the president. (Add to this the possibility that Cheney was doing his best those days to avoid reporters as the story of the administration’s too-cozy ties with Enron, the collapsed energy giant, picked up steam.) So it is understandable that the Greek media should be obsessed both with the irrelevant minutiae as well as the main issues of the prime minister’s US visit. This is, after all, one of the biggest stories on the agenda. It is an opportunity to seek out new nuances in the relationship between Greece and the United States as well as to confirm opinions already held. This time, though, much of the pressure came not from the Greek news media nor from the issues to be discussed, but from a program on Greece and terrorism aired by CBS’s influential «60 Minutes» program just two days before Simitis’s arrival. It is difficult to believe that an affair of state could be colored by something as ephemeral as a television program, but such are the sensitivities of the time. In the post-September 11 world, terrorism is the criterion by which people, organizations, regimes and countries will be judged. «60 Minutes» did not, of course, claim that Greek officials were in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. But by engineering a program in which they used the guerrilla tactic of asking the speaker of the Greek Parliament, Apostolos Kaklamanis, whether he was «sympathetic» to November 17 and then showing his outraged response, the producers of the show not only did Greece a disservice but also journalism everywhere. The program’s producers were in Greece in May when they interviewed many people, including Foreign Minister George Papandreou, his opposite number in the New Democracy opposition party, Dora Bakoyianni, and Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis. None of this material was used. Of course, it is a journalist’s right to choose what he or she will make public. But when dealing with a subject as emotive as terrorism, you have to have some kind of agenda if you choose to keep the facts from getting in the way of a good story. «60 Minutes» seems to have based its report on the comments of former US Ambassador Thomas Niles and E. Wayne Merry, a low-ranking former diplomat who served in Athens. Both of them suggested that Greece’s terrorists enjoyed impunity because of sympathies within the ruling party. All this built up to the question of whether Greece was capable of hosting a safe Olympic Games in 2004. Former Ambassador Robert V. Keeley, who served as his country’s ambassador in Athens from 1985 to 1989, wrote to CBS demanding a «retraction of the libelous program» and «an apology to those of us who have worked assiduously on this problem over so many years without any publicity, for the obvious reason that terrorism is best dealt with out of sight of the media.» His comments on Niles and Merry were most revealing, saying of the former that «I cannot understand or explain» his views on the issue. Merry, he said, «has advertised himself as having been in charge of counter-terrorism at the American Embassy in Athens when he served there.» In fact, as Keeley wrote (in a letter published by Ta Nea and which the former ambassador later kindly provided to Kathimerini’s English Edition), Merry was «a very junior officer, on rotational assignment, who spent part of his tour in the political section, perhaps on occasion preparing reports to Washington on terrorism matters. Because of the sensitivity of our intensive intelligence and operations program to deal with the critical problem of November 17, Merry was not privy to any of it, as he had no ‘need to know,’ given his very limited responsibilities.» This is most revealing material on someone who has provided fodder to many newspaper reports on Greece and its terrorism problem. And Keeley’s comment on Merry could be one on the news media in most countries: «How he has gotten away with presenting himself to the media as an expert on this subject confirms the naivete and ignorance and self-inflicted vulnerability of the media.» And that is where the pity of this story lies. Greek officials and news media react very defensively to such allegations because they feel that these claims – whether planted by some dark forces or not – force Greece to play on an uneven playing field by creating a cloud of negative publicity over the country. Coming after September 11, when the stupidity of many commentators in the Greek media created the impression that the Greeks thought the terrorist attacks in America were, in some way, provoked by US foreign policy, helped intensify the feelings involved (they not only present us as anti-American, they also place us on the side of the terrorists, the argument goes). This, in turn, makes the Greek press demand of its government whether it is ready to give in to a variety of pressures from Washington, forcing a defensive reaction, full of bravado, that no one tells Greece what to do. With all this sound and fury, the substance of Simitis’s visit to Washington was almost lost in the questions asked by the journalists accompanying him and the angry response they drew from him (which we reported in this space last week). The sad thing is that when the American news media appear to be as biased against Greece as «60 Minutes» came across, what are the values that Greek newspapers and television programs are expected to apply? The Greek media have many failings, but whatever they do they do not harm any country’s interests other than those of Greece. (A shining example of this is the publication by Nikos Kakaounakis’s pro-PASOK Karfi last Sunday of a «document of shame» purporting to show that 124 members of PASOK’s predecessor, PAK, were trained in guerrilla warfare. Kakaounakis published the list in an apparent bid to claim that all the former US officials’ talk about lists was the product of a right-wing conspiracy and lacking in credibility. The result was that The Times of London picked up on the story and presented it to its readers as if it were confirmation of PASOK’s murky dealings. «60 Minutes» has a great reputation as an investigative news show and has embarrassed the US government and big corporations innumerable times. This, though, does not mean that if it does a sloppy job on Greece it should be excused. On the contrary, CBS and «60 Minutes» should know, as all of us who work in the news media should, that we are only as good as our last story. Greece and the United States have been allies since each fought for its independence. We are tied by our absolute devotion to democracy and united by our belief in a free press, free enterprise and the right of the individual to pursue happiness and wealth. Much of the confusion surrounding our relationship has been caused by superficial coverage of America in the Greek press. This cannot be corrected by similar lapses across the Atlantic, and the fact that we are far from perfect ourselves does not mean we should not hold others up to the standards to which journalists everywhere should aspire.

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