Spot the news story

My following article appears in today’s ABC Unleashed:

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s overseas trip has been extensively covered in the mainstream media. From George W. Bush to Gordon Brown, the travelling journalists have given readers and viewers a running commentary of his daily meetings.

Missing from the vast majority of the coverage, however, has been analysis of anything substantive. The trivial became “news” and constructed controversies were deemed worthy of discussion.

Take Chris Uhlmann’s report on ABC1’s Lateline last week that stated Rudd had “laid to rest the claim he would threaten the [US/Australia] alliance”. The only people who ever truly believed he would “threaten” the alliance were former Howard government ministers and a few conservative commentators.

Somehow this rump was suddenly worthy of note and repeated by journalists as established fact. It was nothing of the sort, but after being repeated by countless journalists for many years, Uhlmann simply repeated a familiar mantra.

Scott Burchill, senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University, challenged an article by The Australian‘s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan, which states “Rudd will be a tremendous disappointment to the ideological Left in Australia”:

As is so often the case, Sheridan couldn’t be more wrong.

No sane observer of Kevin Rudd from either end of the ideological spectrum expected Rudd to be anything other than a craven and uncritical supporter of Washington’s reckless foreign adventures. Rudd was always going to be as pro-American as Howard, and anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous. Anyone who says there are people who believed anything other than this is simply nuts.

Rudd is the same on Israel. Same on China. Same on Indonesia. Same on everything that counts (Kyoto doesn’t). Why else would he give Bush an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan as a quid pro quo for a partial withdrawal from Iraq, when the war is hopelessly lost, has no coherent strategic objectives and only imperils Australia’s strategic position? Bipartisanship was never in doubt.

Perhaps the best example of the media amplifying trivialities to “news” was Rudd’s salute to Bush at the NATO conference in Bucharest. It was major news in Australia and across the globe, a supposedly poor reflection of subservience towards Washington. We’ll never know Rudd’s exact motivation for the gesture – probably nerves by the new leader in town – but it hardly warranted prime time coverage. It was a story in brief, at best.

ABC1’s Lateline claimed the salute signified Rudd “coming unstuck in Bucharest” with “critics” slamming the move. It was “news” because a few politicians in Australia were upset – Liberal leader Brendan Nelson and Greens leader Bob Brown – and therefore allegedly serious reporters had to quote them. The establishment media never seemed so servile.

Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald has extensively documented the ways in which the American mainstream media consistently highlights the trivial over the meaningful. Here’s Greenwald on April 5:

In the past two weeks, the following events transpired. A Department of Justice memo, authored by John Yoo, was released which authorized torture and presidential lawbreaking. It was revealed that the Bush administration declared the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights to be inapplicable to “domestic military operations” within the U.S. The U.S. Attorney General appears to have fabricated a key event leading to the 9/11 attacks and made patently false statements about surveillance laws and related lawsuits. Barack Obama went bowling in Pennsylvania and had a low score.

A search of journalism database Nexus found that Obama’s bowling featured thousands of times in the past 30 days, but the fact that the Bush administration authorised torture was largely ignored, as it was in Australia.

Greenwald rightly argues that the elite media focuses on the trivial because they believe that’s what the “regular folk” care about and don’t want to concern themselves with holes in the 9/11 story or US interrogators torturing prisoners around the world. This is what establishment media has become.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain has benefited from this unquestioning allegiance to his “war hero” status. The fact that he still doesn’t seem to understand the difference between Sunni and Shiite appears irrelevant.

Being “pro-war” is “serious” while being critical of the Iraq war is deemed by journalists to be weak, anti-American and emboldening the enemy. A majority of Americans embrace setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, though this is lost in the distracting noise amidst fawning over a man, McCain, who believes in endless occupation of the country. Witness the love letter by The Australian‘s Geoff Elliot in January.

One critic of Greenwald says that the media “appears to be more interested in events that determine the future… than in events that look back at the past.” Therefore, focusing on Obama’s bowling skills or Hillary Clinton’s cleavage – another “serious” story in 2007 – is merely want the public craves.

In fact, recent studies show that the American people are increasingly disillusioned with where their country is headed.

This is not a call for the media to solely report information that the “elite” think the public should care about. It’s a reality check.

One of the major stories in the past two weeks in Australia has been Rudd’s salute to Bush. Whatever the merits of Rudd’s overseas trip – and Scott Burchill’s point about his slavishness towards major powers rings true – journalists need to remove themselves from the insulated bubble and not simply repeat each others stories and repackage them as “news”.