Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Understanding the world through the media

One of the thing that has amazed me over the last few years is how badly the Australian press understands America. I had thought this was a symptom of George W.Bush being in the white house, a character so unusual to the Australian mindset that we never got a bearing on him. But it continued through the2008 election campaign and through to today. This isn’t just a function of remoteness either, take todays effort by Brad Norrington, The Australian’s US based reporter:

If any proof were needed that US foreign policy, especially in the Pacific, is far down the list of priorities for Obama and his team then here it is.
George W. Bush ignored the region, say his detractors. What about Obama? The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stumbled through a prepared script yesterday. But he put the situation aptly: “The passage of health reform is of paramount importance and the President is determined to see this battle through.”
In other words, Obama’s domestic push to pass a watered-down version of health reform in the US congress so he can chalk up a legislative victory after a year of bumbling comes first. The message to Indonesia and Australia could not be clearer.

Like a spoilt child there have been a few similar whinges that the US president is not coming till June. But heres the rub, Health Care is easily the most important policy Obama will pass in his maximum 8 years in office. Save responding to another 9/11 type security crisis, this is the most important week of his presidency. That he was even still considering it until the other day is amazing in itself. Norrington like every single journalist at The Australian obviously has his anti-left biases (ever notice how a hatred of the left rather than positive support for the policies of the right is a guiding light for most conservative politicians and writers?), but if you cant empahise with your subject of analysis (in this case Obama) you can’t understand them. This is the error Louis Nowra has now made twice, both with his portrayal of Abbott and with Greer, and for which Paul Kelly rightly whacks Four Corners Monday night portrait.

Equally a quick look at the facts as the much better informed Michael Fullilove notes, shows how insular Norrington’s complaint is:

there is a unique Pacific tilt to this administration. President Obama has unusual ties to the region. He was born in Hawaii; he lived for several years in Indonesia; and his mother worked in Southeast Asia for a decade. “Indonesia was for me, as a young boy, a magical place.” Asian leaders are focused on interests, however, not personal stories. Every Asian capital is like a giant abacus, constantly calculating the relative power of competing states. However, Obama’s biography does provide a useful connection to Asian public. This would have been his second trip to the region in six months, following his November visit to Japan, South Korea, Singapore and China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Asia her very first port of call.

While partisans and commentators within a country often misunderstand each other (sometimes deliberately) the effects tend to wash out as the public has other sources of information, but when it comes to understanding another country, the effects of media distortion can be much more significant. In his address to the Australian Parliament, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted that many false stereotypes and misunderstandings still remain between our two countries, harming business, political and cultural relations. Few are surprised by this trouble given the huge cultural, religious and language distances, the lack of much common cause in geopolitics between Australia and Indonesia and the fact that it is only recently that Australian media have been able to easily report from the country. But the inability of the Australian press to sensibly understand the USA is even more amazing. Stereotypes still dominate otherwise sober pieces, with the Republican George Bush a dumb cowboy, and Obama the effete liberal. The Australian press has ignored the US
s debate over healthcare or when covered simply accepted talking points that the bill blows out the deficit and is going to fail -as Norrington does-, (when it actually reduces debt and the bill will pass. Obviously most Australian’s don’t care, but for those who are even remotely interested in the politics of our biggest ally and the biggest economy in the world, there’s no reason why you would choose to read the Australian media over whats available even on the blogs, let alone from the US media online.

The Australian media rarely covers US news in anything like a timely fashion (big stories in the US tend to take at least 48 hours to make our newspapers) and their willingness to go along with the first piece of common wisdom that comes bobbing along and hold onto it for dear life (that Hillary Clinton was sure to win the primaries & election) is laughable in this age of blogs, twitter and very very easily accessible content from the USA. Australian academics arn’t so backwards, with many fine US scholars in this country, including the United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney. Likewise our policy and intelligence community, who rarely make their views public but traces of which can be found on sites like The Interpreter tend to have a much sharp view. 20 years ago, the Australian medias tardy and unfocused view of the USA would be perhaps explainable, but it isn’t anymore. And given that the USA is now one of the few countries which Australian media networks still place their own correspondents, (Norrington for News Ltd, Anne Summers for Fairfax) the incomprehension is even more bewildering.

Our academics will go on writing papers for each other, and our government will continue to set its policy and approach based on its own evaluations, but if the general public is so ill-served by the media in its understanding of our closest ally within a very common cultural sphere then our hope for gaining public understanding of just as important but much harder to assess countries like Indonesia or China is very very low. For the good of this country, in understanding major American issues (ie invasion of Iraq, how the US economy is going) we need our media to do a better job. It’s partly a question of resources, but the media also need to begin selecting experts on the region to write about it, rather than giving domestic journalists plum spots in Washington or Beijing where they walk around as tourists for 3 years before the next lucky mid-career writer gets a cocktail tour.

4 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Matt C

     /  March 21, 2010

    Peggy Noonan agrees with Norrington:

    Excuse me, but it is embarrassing—really, embarrassing to our country—that the president of the United States has again put off a state visit to Australia and Indonesia because he’s having trouble passing a piece of domestic legislation he’s been promising for a year will be passed next week. What an air of chaos this signals to the world. And to do this to Australia of all countries, a nation that has always had America’s back and been America’s friend.

  2. Joey Mac

     /  March 22, 2010

    Not to sure if you have seen this: . Does Dominic Knight join the list of ignorant press reporters?

  3. Knights just taking the piss, Noonan sadly is trying to appeal to her conservative fan club by making everything Obama does into an error. She afterall was the speechwriter for Reagan who never visited Australia. Noonan wrote a fantastic book on her time in the White House, and won a lot of fans as a conservative critic of Bush Jnr, but she’s gone off the deep end under Obama. That former sense and decency replaced with only anger.

    No one can doubt how important Healthcare was to Obama, and how important Obama was to the passage of Healthcare. And with such a major domestic success, he will have a lot more muscle to deliver on his foreign policy abroad. Nothing breeds success like success, and in Moscow, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, civil servants are re-assessing the capabilities of this American President. That can only be to Australia’s advantage (as will his extended journey in June/July)