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Kirsten Han Headshot

When the "Success Story" Is Neither a Success Nor a Story

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On July 11, a month after the Greek government shut down public service broadcaster ERT, CNN reported that it was "back on the air." However, the American news network seemed a little puzzled, adding in its report that "employees still seemed very upset."

It's actually all perfectly simple. Allow me to explain to CNN: The ERT employees still seem "very upset" because the broadcaster currently on air is not ERT. The public service broadcaster currently on air is little more than a hastily cobbled together channel broadcasting without a license, proper staff or much original programming. In fact, the director of one of the first films its broadcast is now seeking to sue for defamation out of his unhappiness at being associated with that "despicable channel."

In all fairness, it's not just CNN. Back in June, Reuters reported that ERT was to reopen after a "court victory", making it seem as if the problem of its sudden closure had been solved. This narrative was adopted by other non-Greek media as well, and the international news cycle moved on.

Standing on the doorstep of ERT's headquarters in Athens just a day before CNN's report, it was clear that the foreign media was missing out. The crowds were smaller than they were on the first few days of the protest, but the occupation was far from over. Stressed out and exhausted from a month of long hours, lost income and political wrangling, this was the time ERT's journalists, musicians, technicians and other staff most needed international support. But the foreign press was more or less gone.

It was reported that way, but the closure of ERT was not a mere blip on the radar of Greek news. There were many issues tied into its shutdown -- and all subsequent events -- that were neglected, possibly because it didn't fit the news cycle, or the mainstream narrative of Greece and its economic crisis.

There was little exploration of how the official reasons for shutting down ERT -- that it was expensive, wasteful and corrupt -- could be easily debunked: ERT was making a profit, staff were paid modest salaries, and those who were drawing hefty pay checks were government cronies appointed to positions they may not even have been qualified for. Dig a little deeper and it would quickly become apparent that austerity has been nothing more than a smokescreen in this whole nasty episode.

But that doesn't mean austerity had nothing to do with it. In many ways ERT's closure is a perfect example of how harsh austerity measures have been used -- whether as an excuse or not - to systematically strip Greece down to its barest of bare bones, taking away so many things Greeks hold dear.

Take, for instance, ERT's three musical ensembles, officially disbanded on June 11 (the day the government made its announcement and cut ERT's signal). Its symphony orchestra is the oldest in Greece, and the only radio symphony orchestra. Throughout our time in Greece we were told by many, over and over again, that it was the flagship orchestra of Greece, the one Greek musicians aspired to join. Speaking to the musicians themselves, we found that many had trained overseas, only to return to Greece out of a desire to play for the ERT orchestra.

"There used to be fights to get seats for an ERT orchestra concert at the Athens festival," one friend said. For many Greeks, the ERT orchestra was the orchestra, the one they watched on their televisions and whose concerts they could afford to attend (as a state orchestra, their tickets were subsidized).

The orchestra had been performing for the Greek people since 1938, establishing itself at the center of Greece's classical music scene. But now, with a simple announcement citing "austerity", it finds itself as little more than a group of tired, determined musicians clinging stubbornly to their commitment to music, performing nightly for the public on a makeshift stage. "We won't permit this orchestra to die in our hands," we were told. But how many more performances, how many more nights, can this orchestra go on, unpaid and unsupported?

How long more before Greece will have to really say goodbye to yet another treasured institution?

One must understand the limitations of foreign news reporting -- resources are always limited and no matter how hard you try there will always be something left out or under-reported. There's simply not enough manpower to make sure that absolutely everything in this world is covered in the way it deserves to be.

Yet this does not excuse inaccurate reporting, such as CNN saying that ERT has resumed its broadcast when it is actually a whole different organization (if you can call it that). It does not excuse Reuters saying that ERT has "reopened", without even a mention of the continuing occupation and protests. We cannot force a story-shaped ending on to events just because it suits us; to do that is a disservice to the people for whom this is not just a "story", but the reality of their everyday lives.

We've heard of the decline of foreign news reporting. If this is what's happening now, and rich stories like ERT are given scant attention, what will happen if foreign news reporting shrinks still further? If we're missing out on important issues like ERT in Greece, then what else are we missing out on?