Valentine’s Day, 2013, brought the Institute for New Economic Thinking a rude shock that belied the day’s reputation for good cheer and romance. A German business magazine, Wirtschaftswoche, published an article signed by no less than three correspondents claiming that INET had financed the appearance at a panel of at Columbia University of the leader of the principal Greek opposition party, Mr. Alexis Tsipras, along with two of his advisers (“Ihren Auftritt mitfinanziert hat Soros’ Thinktank INET”).
The tale was worthy of Baron Münchausen – one so tall that it took a while for us to stop laughing. INET is physically near Columbia and we often talk to its students and faculty; several of the latter, including a Nobel Prize winner, serve on our advisory board. So when we were asked to join as cosponsors of a set of panels on a topic of wide interest – Greece and the euro zone – with, among other groups, Columbia Law’s Center for Global Legal Transformation and its Business School’s Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy, along with the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College – we were receptive. But we didn’t pay anything to anyone for anything, even for refreshments. All that happened was that one of our scholars, INET’s Director of Research Projects, Dr. Thomas Ferguson, joined five other economists and international law specialists on one of the panels that comprised the night’s program.
But when Handelsblatt Online – part of the same corporate family – republished the article with minor embellishments and the identical false claim the next day, we knew that, given the highly charged political situation in Greece, it was imperative for both publications to quickly correct the record.
So we asked both to do that. Almost immediately, it became obvious that Wirtschaftswoche had no evidence for its claim. When the magazine’s editor dithered, Dr. Ferguson wrote a letter in German outlining the real state of affairs. Here is the letter in translation:
Feb. 20, 2013
Dear Sir or Madame:
Since I read the German press almost every day, I noticed your article on George Soros and Europe of February 14 (http://www.wiwo.de/politik/europa/portraet-wie-sich-george-soros-als-euro-retter-inszeniert/7751122.html ; see also: http://www.handelsblatt.com/finanzen/boerse-maerkte/boerse-inside/george-soros-zwischen-grosszuegigkeit-und-groessenwahn/7777722.html). The article, in which the authors portray George Soros as a “Great Speculator,” is in many points itself highly speculative. Many details are pure assertions, which – as far as I can judge – are not verified from reliable sources.
A particularly acute example concerns the discussion of the panel at Columbia University. It is correct that I took part. But it is not true that the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) contributed to financing the panel. INET is located near the University and from time to time it naturally happens that it cosponsors programs of general interest. Absolutely no money came from INET and I would add that Syriza paid all of its travel costs itself. Its participation came in the course of its visit to the USA – quite like its visit to Germany in January, during which, among other things, it met with [German] Federal Finance Minister Schäuble.
Allow me one last remark. At the panel discussion the representatives of Syriza warned that a continuation of the politics of austerity threatens to split society and strengthen tendencies to extreme authoritarianism. No one suggested that the Federal Republic [of Germany] wishes these things to happen. Nevertheless, they are happening. Just as in 1931 in Germany, continuing austerity policies without regard to costs leads to a socially impossible situation that can easily be catastrophic for all of southern Europe. From many years of experience with Germany, I know that this one-sided reporting does not correspond to customary journalistic standards there. I hope that in the future you will check your assertions before you publish.
Director of Research Programs, Institute for New Economic Thinking
It is often said that in public life, it is the cover up, not the original mistake, that really causes damage. Neither publication was responsive, with Wirtschaftswoche actively stonewalling. Pretty soon, what we feared came to pass. Relying on the bogus magazine report, Mr. Evangelos Venizelos, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of Greece, denounced the report in Parliament. In Greece, which in both the inter-war period and, alas, right now, has a tangled history of extreme rightwing rhetoric and some strongly anti-democratic political currents, the result was a spasm of newspaper commentary that sometimes bordered on the pathological.
We regret to say that when we asked Wirtschaftswoche how a German magazine could sit back and watch a completely false report trigger such a horrifying burst of misplaced indignation, we received no answer. So Dr. Ferguson wrote again, this time pointing to the German right of “Gegendarstellung” (“Counter-Presentation”), which would oblige the magazine to print a correction with equal prominence.
Only at that point, did Wirtschaftswoche print excerpts from Dr. Ferguson’s first letter as a “Nachtrag” (Postcript) to the original. This appeared just in time for the first query to INET from a Greek television news program.
We naturally expected that Handelsblatt would follow suit and at least publish at least the Postscript to its version. When it didn’t, we wrote again, reminding the paper of the right of Gegendarstellung. At length, Handelsblatt, too, ran the Postscript.
We remain baffled why it took so long for two well-known and respected German publications to make an obvious correction. Even more, we regret how the shock waves from this utterly unfounded report inflamed Greek public life.