We can’t get enough of Donald and Hilary!
John Tulloh correctly identifies US influence in the priorities of Australian media. Half a century ago Henry Mayer argued that while media might not influence how we think, they do decide what we think about. This was before television was firmly established, before big conglomerates destroyed diversity and before the ’24 hour’ news cycle shaped politics. Add the immediacy of the internet and social media and the how-what distinction remains a useful theory but hardly describes media influence adequately.
Also fifty years ago, Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness coined the term ‘Austerica’ to describe the transient, seemingly superficial but ultimately pervasive influence of US popular culture. While it is easy to see the attraction of the images of freedom, affluence and happiness pouring into local culture, it is difficult to understand how we ignored the long-term implications of ‘coca-colonisation’.
There is much to admire in US society. We should recognise and replicate the achievements of other cultures. When New South Wales premier, Bob Carr was depicted as ‘Abe’ because he admired President Lincoln but someone as astute as Carr would never accept the rubbish along with the gold. Reliance on exotic role models prevents us from emulating people in our own history. One survey found students less able to name an Australian High Court judge than judges from US television.
Historically, people have resisted the trend for local cultures to be derivative rather than original. Old bush yarner Duke Tritton was invited to be guest of honour when a Sydney high school was staging Guys and Dolls. He replied that he could not attend a show with such American names, whereupon the school good naturedly changed the title to Blokes and Sheilas. It is doubtful that the young hospitality staff who ask what ‘you guys’ want would understand such gestures.
Signs of American influence on Australian society are indisputable and the effects on political culture are becoming clearer. Lazy media present our election campaigns as presidential although party leaders are at least three formal steps away from assuming the position of prime minister. It is no coincidence that our Pauline leaps to the defence of Donald Trump. Sojourners magazine identifies Trump as the embodiment of Jim Crow attitudes. Perhaps we fail to comment on the insidious racism evident in the US society and media because it reflects our own.
The word which best encapsulates the US ethos is ‘capitalism’. We might have reached ‘peak’ capitalism but not post-capitalism. Consumerism, privatisation, and trickle-down theory dominate financial discourse. The language stimulates greed and prepares us for dumped goods, baseball caps and toys mostly franchised from television shows.
News values are dominated by a race to be ‘relevant’, which ironically invokes a herd mentality so that what other media cover becomes the criterion for attention. When The Australian imported a star American for its oped pages the directions for its values became clear. Besides, if your owner wants to be a US citizen, local journos have a clear lead to follow.
Most worrying is when media uncritically accept State Department and Australian Government press releases about defence. Official lines on security dominate foreign affairs policy. The underlying doctrine is that Australia needs the US to such an extent that we are happy to be minor players in the projection of American power. We supply moral legitimacy in the campaign for hearts and minds even if our military deployments are little more than token gestures. Although the US has increased its presence here in recent years, most of us – except a few courageous protestors around Pine Gap – have lost the will to dissent. Media have readily adopted US language around terrorism and security and enthusiastically promoted this into the general discourse. We need to learn anew the language for critical policy analysis.
John Tulloh’s insightful article shows that not everyone accepts the US invasion. Indigenous survival day celebrations on 26 January are inspiring because Aboriginal cultures have survived even greater assault than Australian culture generally. New Matilda refuses to abandon its independence. SBS retains some other languages but its fourth channel NITV dropped its nightly news telecasts last year.
As media readily follow American leads, it is difficult to locate genuine Australian voices. So, despite the saturation coverage of the Trump-Clinton circus, there is no Australian view of the US presidential campaign. Mostly, our comments simply reflect back what US television has suggested to us. It is a waste of time, energy and talent.
Tony Smith is a former academic, regular contributor to Eureka Street, Australian Review of Public Affairs and Australian Quarterly.