Naked Before the Storm

Is the world heading into another financial maelstrom?

The Standard & Poor’s debt rating service today downgraded Greece’s sovereign debt to junk status over concern that the country will default on its staggering debt load, now 124% of its economy … and growing. The fear of default could be a self-fulfilling prophecy as it significantly raises the interest rate at which the government can borrow in order to service existing debt or raise new funds — without outside *special* assistance.

“The challenges our country faces are unprecedented,” Prime Minister George Papandreou told his party. “Not only for Greece, but also for Europe and even the world economy. … And what I say is no exaggeration.”

If Greece defaults on its debt, other shaky European nations may fall off the precipice: first Portugal and then perhaps Spain, with its much bigger economy. And then … well, with the contagion effect inducing an accelerating whirlwind of debt downgrades and investor panic, who knows? The euro will be swamped by all the bailout demands. Hearing thunderclaps, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are trying to rescue Greece — or rather, to keep themselves from drowning if the situation deteriorates further.

Problem is, some EU member states are furious at the prospect of being soaked by Greece’s cavalier unwillingness to live within its means. Germany in particular has been, um, shall we say, hesitant to commit its crucial share of a 30 billion euro loan (in addition to 15 billion euros from the IMF) unless Greece shows a Teutonic-like commitment to fiscal discipline. Greek unionists are letting everyone with a camera know what they think about that, by taking to the streets to denounce the mere prospect of austerity. Negotiations are ongoing as storm clouds gather….

And to think it all could have been avoided, if only the Greek government and people had been more honest and responsible from the start (or even the middle) of the crisis. The government purposefully, and vastly, understated the amount of it owed, which is supposed to be under 3% of GDP to comply with EU membership rules. (Instead, it’s closer to 14%, as revealed by a recent independent audit.) Voters, meanwhile, don’t pay taxes, preferring the cheaper option of bribing tax collectors – and are outraged that services or jobs might be cut in order to close the yawning gaps in budget and credibility. Now investors and other governments have a hard time believing that Greece will actually deliver on its newest promises.

What does all this have to do with communication? This: Trust is everything in communication, so if you’ve got bad news, get it out quickly, get it out completely, and get away from it by taking immediate corrective action – or it will be out to get you.

Unmasking Anonymity

Posting comments online is an addictive, and contagious, activity – where would the Internet’s viral vibrancy and interconnectivity be without it? But should site operators allow visitors to post anonymously?

Journalists especially wonder what good purpose it serves for anonymity to be offered to those who add comments to the end of online reportage. Some papers, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, require the posters register, but that information is not publicly available.

Anonymity is no guarantee, however, merely a courtesy or a custom. Case in point, The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently outed a judge for anonymously posting on its website disparaging comments about a local lawyer with cases before her court. Her Honor is suing for violation of privacy.

Bear in mind that not much if any whistle-blowing deserving of anonymity is occurring in these comment streams. Instead they tend to be postings from people who don’t want the boss to know what they’re really doing during work hours — or they’re excretions from the petty, the obscene, and the venomous. “A lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl,” William Grueskin of Columbia University’s J-School said in the New York Times (4/12/10), “with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher.”

So news organizations are pondering and tweaking (… it doesn’t help the cause of anonymity that advertisers don’t care to see their ads pop up next to some unexpectedly nasty comment). The Washington Post, for instance, is planning a system of “user tiers” based on the credibility a user has garnered from other users, much as Amazon.com displays more prominently the product reviews voted “helpful” by other readers/reviewers. The new Post system might give more prominence to commentators using their real names.

On the matter of message board policing, many sites already provide this function but usually lack the resources to keep up with the volume — or check to make sure that divulged identities and email addresses are legitimate. But there is hope for the future of honesty, integrity, and courage (or perhaps just for imprudence): Younger generations tend to be more comfortable attaching their names and faces to their beliefs and preferences (even though it’s often TMI – too much information – another problem altogether).

Calling it an “education process,” Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington told the Times, “As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

The Passive Aggressive Press Release

“Real American Stories features uplifting tales about overcoming adversity and we believe Mr. Smith’s interview fit that criteria. However, as it appears that Mr. Smith does not want to be associated with a program that could serve as an inspiration to others, we are cutting his interview from the special and wish him the best with his fledgling acting career.”

— Fox News statement issued after entertainer LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) complained that an interview he gave in 2008 for a show to be called Real American Stories would finally be aired – by political figure Sarah Palin, the show’s newly appointed host