When there are austerity protests in Europe, New York Times headlines like “Markets Falter in Europe Amid Protests on Austerity” (9/27/12) and “Markets Tumble on Unrest in Greece and Spain” (9/27/12) accurately capture the reports’ primary concerns: how the protests might affect financial markets. Of lesser concern to the Times, it seems, is how austerity affects people. CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall spoke on September 28 with Costas Panayotakis, a professor of social science at the New York City College of Technology, who has been following U.S. media coverage of the economic crisis in Greece.
CS: I wonder if you could briefly tell us exactly what the protests in Greece are about.
CP: Greece has been under a very brutal austerity program for the last three years. It has had to adopt policies that cut people’s salaries, destroy their labor rights, cut social services—in exchange for a bailout that has allowed Greece to keep servicing its debts. And people are increasingly realizing that these measures are not helping solve the crisis but making the crisis much worse.
The economic increase has shrunk by 20 percent in the last three years or so, and unemployment is skyrocketing to 25 percent, with more than 50 percent unemployment for young workers. So people are basically saying that enough is enough, and they are trying to fight back against the measures, and against the government, which was recently elected on a platform that was quite different from the measures they are currently pushing through.
CS: Last time we spoke, there was a lot of media commentary about how lazy Greek workers were threatening everything, even people in the United States. How has coverage changed since about a year ago?
CP: One of the ways I think that the coverage has evolved is to recognize that these austerity policies in Europe are in some ways counterproductive, because they produce recession, which reduces tax revenues and makes it harder to reduce deficits—which is the ostensible purpose of these policies in the first place. And these policies also, of course, are producing major popular movements of resistance, and backlash and so on.
The dominant viewpoint in a lot of mainstream media is in support of free market neoliberal policies. But in publications like the New York Times, for example, there is a kind of Keynesian component, which basically says you shouldn’t overdo it with cutbacks, and you should try to come up with structural reforms that reignite growth.
So, basically, there is an evolution of part of the media to a more qualified support of these policies—saying, yes, these policies are necessary, but one should be careful not to overshoot, because the whole project might be in danger.
CS: You’re talking about them taking this tempered view where they still support neoliberalism and austerity, but you can take it too far. Isn’t that still contradictory?
CP: I think what they usually do is identify people like Angela Merkel in Germany as having an extremely hard line on this. You know, in times of crisis, there are often divisions in the ruling circles or the capitalist class. Because in times of crisis, you have popular movements that are fighting against the status quo, and they could become a threat to more fundamental changes.
So the New York Times, in this sense, is taking this kind of more nuanced view. You can have a commitment to the neoliberal project with nuances between the people supporting it, and different conceptions of how you advance this project in a more effective way.
CS: What would good journalism about what is happening in Greece and Spain look like?
CP: First of all, when you look at austerity policies and you try to evaluate them, I think a good way to go about it is to compare the claims of supporters of austerity to the results of their policies, and [compare] the predictions of austerity that the critics made to what ended up happening.
And if you were to do that, you would realize quickly that the people who have supported austerity all along have been disproven by the facts. The positive outcomes of austerity that they predicted have not materialized, and the European crisis has not been contained in Greece; it has spread and deepened. And, basically, the people who criticized these policies to begin with have been much more accurate in their predictions.
But of course, in my view, it’s not a matter of bad journalism; I mean, media are obviously not a neutral force in society, they are players within any kind of social system, and mainstream media usually represent the perspective of powerful groups which benefit the most from the current response to the crisis. So I don’t think their misleading representation is some sort of mistake; it’s just a kind of, let’s say, structurally imposed choice, given the power relations at the basis of our capitalist society.