Gossip and Free Speech


First things first: I wasn’t fired and I didn’t quit. I spent last month in Greece, where some two dozen newspapers are published every day and citizens are fiercely devoted to free speech. I rode with a taxi driver in Athens who claimed to know for a fact that someone is paying “black money” to speed up construction projects for the 2004 summer Olympics, and I watched a bus driver on the island of Naxos amuse himself by picking a yelling match with a different passenger on each ride (usually for a minor infraction like opening the window while the air conditioning was on).

That Greeks like to blast their opinions is nothing new. But their debates are now amplified by the proliferation of media outlets and the clash of two political parties, socialist Pasok and conservative New Democracy. Pasok Prime Minister Costas Simitis is up for re-election next year and trails New Democracy in the polls. On July 4, the day after Simitis dumped his general secretary, Costas Laliotis, the left-wing tabloid Eleftherotypia ran excerpts from every newspaper’s take on the story, including headlines, analysis, and gossip. TV pundits discussed politics from dusk until dawn. It seems the only undisputed national hero is Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Olympics organizing committee, who is called more clever and competent than any politician (and who is not responsible for the pace of construction).

When the Greek media report on themselves, the self-interest is usually visible just below the surface. Take, for example, a July 11 story in the Athens News, a popular and well-written English-language weekly. The general director of Mega Channel, a private TV station, had resigned, and the story led with the news that Mega Channel part owner Christos Lambrakis endorsed the resignation as part of the TV company’s preparations for next year’s election. The Athens News story had many insights, but did not mention that Lambrakis publishes the Athens News. (A week later, the newspaper reported that the resignation had been withdrawn.)

Lambrakis, also publisher of the Greek dailies Ta Nea and To Vima, is but one of many players in the world of media ownership. Other part owners of the influential Mega Channel include the publisher of the newspaper Ethnos, who is a construction tycoon, and the owner of Eleftherotypia. The son of a shipping magnate publishes the daily Kathimerini, which appears in Greek and English and is distributed with the International Herald Tribune. It seems every major business family has a stake in a media company and is the subject of recurring (and often overblown) allegations of scandal.

Competing news owners scrutinize their rivals, whispering that the other one is only trying to advance his political and financial interests. Yet neither government nor courts seem to be zealous monitors of the industry. Makis Psomiades, owner of the defunct newspaper To Onoma, was once sentenced to 16 months for libel, but allowed to pay a fine to avoid jail time. Kathimerini recently reported that the country’s private TV and radio stations have operated “without any legal framework” for most of the 13 years since they were permitted to incorporate.

In Greece, as elsewhere, hyperbole and vendetta are the children of free speech. George Kouris, who publishes the left-wing tabloid Avriani, carries on huge feuds in print, while right-wing publisher Grigoris Michalopoulos has been charged with blackmail and death threats. (Michalopoulos has avoided trial by claiming poor health.) But here’s the upside: A press culture that tolerates character assassination tends to be fertile ground for humor and investigations.

Late in my travels, I discovered two unusual weeklies, To Pondiki (“The Mouse”) and To Paron (“The Present”). To Pondiki, founded as an anti-conservative satirical in 1979, has a dwindling readership but is carefully read by the cognoscenti. Typical of its caustic tone: a political cartoon in April carrying the caption “Free at Last!” with an illustration of Iraqi skeletons awaiting U.S. troops. To Paron, founded as an underground paper during the German occupation, is now passed around like samizdat by the journalists who are the sources for its scurrilous media gossip. Both are cleverly laid out, with ads few and far between.

Clearly, these are the insiders’ papers. Maybe if I study the language another year, I’ll actually be able to read them.

‘Voice’ Contracts

On July 16, Village Voice Media announced the layoffs of six employees from the editorial staff in New York—the only forced contraction at the Voice that anyone can remember. The evicted are longtime arts critics C.Carr and Leighton Kerner, senior editor for listings Carla Spartos, associate editor Laura Sinagra (who has since been temporarily retained), Stevie Remsberg from art (also back, following another staffer’s resignation), and Annie Chia from photo. Matt Goldish from systems lost his job as well.

In a company statement, Voice publisher Judy Miszner said, “We believe taking these proactive steps is the right course of action to maintain our long-term health and sustain profitability. The market in New York City remains challenging, and it is our sense that we will not see a significant turnaround in the coming months. This reduction [represents] less than 3 percent of the total workforce.”

Privately held by investment bankers, VVM is making a profit, though not as much as the owners would like. According to one source, the business side presented editor in chief Donald Forst with a mandate—cut X amount from the editorial budget—which could only be achieved by cutting salaries. The layoffs came days after the resignations of executive editor Karen Cook and senior editor Lenora Todaro, who edited the books section. Staff writer Chisun Lee is taking a nine-month leave to pursue a Knight Fellowship at Yale Law School.

Sadness and paranoia now rule, and a rumor is circulating that more cuts will follow. Eighty-five members of Village Voice Local 2110 (out of about 115) signed a letter to management declaring “our profound outrage and disgust” at the layoffs, rejecting the claim that they were “economically necessary” and stating, “We believe the motive here is greed on the part of the paper’s owners, a greed that is apparently willing to sacrifice editorial quality in pursuit of profits.”

What’s more, many staffers dislike the redesign that debuts in next week’s issue. All pieces in the back of the book will be shortened, including the lead reviews. Champions hope the new layout will appeal to younger readers by offering more “points of entry,” while detractors say it will trivialize the content.

Asked to comment, Forst said, “I’ve had easier decisions to make.”

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