CBS’s 60 Minutes program on An Imperfect Union: Europe’s Debt Crisis. An ‘eyewitness’ assessment

09/04/2012 by

On 8th of April, CBS’s 60 Minutes featured a section on the Euro Crisis in which I appeared. Here is my account, and assessment, of it.

Last month I was invited to participate in CBS’s 60 Minutes piece on the euro crisis. First came a meeting with one of the program’s producers, Coleman Cowan. Coleman explained that he had seen my Channel 4 mini documentary on the Euro Crisis, was impressed by the ‘human angle’ that it portrayed, and wanted to involve me in their own attempt at presenting the Euro Crisis to an American audience. Then, a couple of days later, came an hour long interview with Steve Kroft, plus a walk around the meat and fish markets of downtown Athens, the purpose of which was to relate a ‘feel’ of the situation on the ground, along the lines of my Channel 4 piece.

The interview with Steve Kroft was highly pleasurable. He was well briefed (quite obviously by Coleman), asked interesting questions, and engaged with me in a manner that many other leading journalists had failed to do over the past two years. In particular, Steve gave me a platform to explain, in some detail, my analysis of what really caused the Euro Crisis; of the fact that debt is a symptom, as opposed to a cause; of my main criticism of bailouts-plus-austerity (i.e. that they inflict a hideous cost not only on the deficit countries but, eventually, on the surplus nations as well). Nevertheless, knowing how these programs are edited, I was wary of what would make it through the final cut.

Prior to watching the final product, my worst fear was that I would appear as some Greek economist who pleads on behalf of his suffering compatriots, devoid of any serious counter-analysis to that offered by the German Finance Minister, whom I knew the program featured. Thankfully, I was ‘allowed’ a brief window of an opportunity to make an analytical point when Steve asked me: “Most people would say Greece got itself into this by borrowing way too much money, by being a fairly unproductive society, by not paying its taxes. All those things are true.” It was my cue to reply: “All those things are precisely true, but have no capacity to explain the crisis that Greece finds itself in today. All these things have always been true, but we haven’t had a crisis like this. We are now going through what the United States of America went between 1929 and 1932. Only, we are part of a currency union which was never designed to sustain such a crisis.”

While appreciative of this (brief) opportunity to issue an analytical statement on such a popular program, I very much fear that the viewer was, in the end, short-changed. Yet again the Euro Crisis was reported in a manner that leads the audience to the conclusion that the problem with the eurozone is that some countries accumulated too much debt and that, now, Germany has the unenviable task of bailing them out; a task that puts it in the difficult position of having to impose strict conditions before it dispenses its citizens’ hard earned money. While the program was sympathetic to the suffering Greeks, the underlying analytical message was simple: Bitter medicine must be dispensed, Germany is dispensing it (courtesy of being the only country that has the funds to bail the rest out) and, alas, Greeks and assorted southerners (plus the Irish) are unhappy about the loss of sovereignty involved (an unhappiness that is heightened by the memory of the Nazi occupation).

This analysis is precisely wrong. During my long interview with Steve Kroft (out of which came the snippets that you see in the piece) I put all my energy into offering what I consider to be the true causes and nature of the Euro Crisis; the way that eurozone was constructed, the prior flow of rivers of private (bank created money into the Periphery, the internal imbalances which have been growing in Europe, its dependence on the US deficit etc. Of these, only the statement “we are part of a currency union which was never designed to sustain such a crisis” made it. But disconnected from any explanation of what I meant, and how it pertains to the failure that is the current bailout-austerity policy mix, I suspect that the viewer had no chance of understanding my point, or using my narrative as a counterweight to those of Mr Schauble and Ms Lagarde.

All in all, CBS did as good a job as I ought to expect. Perhaps it was too much to expect a more nuanced program from a US channel, when Europe’s own media are far cruder and less analytical. Nevertheless, while fearing a worse piece than the one that transpired, I was hoping that my own Channel 4 effort (which brought me to CBS’ attention) would have inspired CBS to aim slightly higher.

Postscript: To all journalists reading this, and who may be interested in some advice on how to report (and how not to report) the Euro Crisis, see this article (which was commissioned by the British Journalism Review, and appeared in its March 2012 issue).

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