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Death of the (4th) Estate

Anyone reading coverage of last week’s Greek independence celebration at the White House cannot be faulted for thinking Greece is anything but a country on the brink. Breathless Twitter pics of cool kid John Stamos and celebrity FinMin Varoufakis mingling in the East Room graced even the pages of the Washington Post.  Varoufakis had no official agenda, but President Obama broke the protocol to share an informal chat with the FinMin who, in predictably Varoufakis form, immediately briefed reporters on their very public conversation. The media covered the details but failed to bridge their exchange with more meaningful coverage on the state of Greece at the IMF and World Bank spring meetings or Varoufakis’ Brookings Institution address held concurrently in Washington last week.

It appears as if Greeks have been assigned to the kid’s table, sharing selfies while the adults determine if dessert will be served.

Original, investigative reporting has been reduced to a smaller and smaller universe of news outlets, largely the agenda-setting media. This is a universal reality because news organizations are corporations seeking shareholder profit. Competing for readership in the digital age, with its veneer of celebrity, was on acute display last week in regards to Greek coverage. Perhaps not scandalous but certainly concerning, indicative of an ambient scandal made more insidious because it isn’t obvious.

Readers searching for insightful news must increasingly rely on a Cambrian explosion of alternative media, think tanks and opinion editorials. Without nontraditional coverage, those living outside Greece get only part of the story. Understanding the rising concerns among international leadership that populist policies emanating from Athens – whether expanding social programs and pension reforms or promising to abolish property taxes and release convicted terrorists – contradict repeated public assurances and carefully scripted Orwellian language of “intention” as opposed to “will” regarding repayments or progress on structural reforms. Making sense of countervailing reports and data, knowing which media is left or right leaning, reading into the scripted lines and sound bites reported – whether from Athens, Brussels or Washington – is all too often like putting together a puzzle with entirely too many pieces.

Equally disturbing is the news that is not widely reported. Like the very private meeting Mr. Varoufakis had with Lee C. Buchheit in Washington on Friday. Mr. Buchheit is among the most sought after international debt lawyers who over the past three decades has represented governments unable to pay their debts. He was behind Greece’s €200 billion debt restructuring in 2012. If indeed his services are being retained again to negotiate another haircut, he has his work cut out for him. Although he has orchestrated public sector debt restructuring, Mr. Buchheit is better known for forcing private sector bondholders’ losses. This time around patience is running thin, as European creditors and the IMF have made it clear that they will not accept a delay in payments or simple debt forgiveness.

On Friday there was another ominous sign that Greece’s woes are closing in on the country. The Dow closed down 279 points and it appears that one-day dive was driven in part by Greece’s never-ending financial quagmire.  As I post this piece at the opening of Monday’s NYSE, trading is rebounding from Friday’s sell-off but Greece’s split-screen optics of saying one thing while doing another continue to unsettle markets. With the clock ticking and Greece fast running out of cash, perhaps the real story will be more original than anyone is currently reporting.