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Thursday, August 01, 2002

Fish Wrap

Tim Blair claims to be the official Ugly Face of Australian right-wing journalism. I've seen Tim's picture. Just before I left Australia, we got a copy of The Australian with one of Tim's columns, and there he was at the top. I wouldn't say he was ugly, but he did bear a really disturbing resemblance to one of my colleagues in Australia. Tim, bubba, when they redo your picture, try not to leer. (Sadly, I could not find an on-line example.)

Tim lived within spitting distance of me in Sydney---he in Bondi, I in Randwick. But I could never find the time to go and spit on him.

Is this the place for my snarling evisceration of Australian newspapers? Yes, I believe it is.

Australian newspapers suck. The only ones that don't suck are the bush papers such as the Coonabarabran Times (which runs ads for septic services proudly proclaiming "Number 1 in the number 2 business!"), and the Northern Territories Whateveritis (which runs touching news stories about how horses or dogs have saved men from crocodiles). These are generally no-nonsense, occasionally folksy papers which report the local news without attempting a lot of pompous analysis. They wind up being more professional than the professionals, because their reporters are not over-worried about their professional careers. No one on the Coona Times staff is bucking for whatever Australia has in place of a Pulitzer. No one from the Mudgee Guardian and Gulgong Advertiser expects to be invited to Canberra to pontificate on refugee policy.

The major broadsheets, on the other hand, have a hard time distinguishing between news and opinion. The reporters generally do not shy from interjecting their own personal views into what should be strictly news items. When I read the papers, it was usually the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a bit surprised to find the paper's own editorials fairly balanced---at least on issues I understood, i.e., not the domestic Australian matters. But the letters! The letters selected were often unmitigated drivel---shrill, smug posturing from the Sisters of Perpetual Indignation. And the guest opinion pieces are little better, just longer. (See here for more on the views of the SMH's readership. Remember that the attacks took place near 11pm, Sydney time, and the paper has to go to bed early in the morning, so those letter writers felt compelled, in the wee small hours of the morning, to fire up their computers and send these important missives outlining their views.)

When I first got to Australia I was astounded at the attitude toward the government that was displayed in the letters and opinion pieces. The letter writers seemed to think that the lawmakers were not just their neighbors, people like themselves who had managed to get elected to Parliament, but instead creatures from Mars, who had no tie to the Australian people, yet the Australians were bound to follow their dictates. (Maybe it's a colonial hangover.) I figured that something had changed since the government was elected, and the people were now in a more left-leaning mood, and were chafing under the "conservative" government.

And then another election was held. And Labor lost a few seats, and the Liberals (the ruling party) gained a few (other parties gained as well, as I recall). So I was surprised to find that the vicious whining and carping of the print media did not reflect the views of most Australians. This was also reflected in the SMH's poll, shortly after September 11, which found that the vast majority of Australians approved of American military efforts in Afghanistan. The SMH, naturally, was against it.

I stopped buying the SMH toward the end of last September, when their US correspondent, Gay Alcorn, did an article on the New McCarthyism sweeping the US. People were self-censoring their opinions, because otherwise...they'd get kicked out of the PTA? They'd be fired from their jobs?? They'd be taken away in the middle of the night and end up in shallow graves??? No, they might be---horrors!---criticized. Oh, the humanity! Her star witnesses for the prosecution were Susan Sontag and Bill Maher, both of whom are notably still breathing.

(Maher's case was particularly irritating to me. Here's a guy who's whole schtick is entertaining people by pissing other people off, and it turns out, whoops! he's pissed off too many people, and there aren't enough left who are merely entertained. Who could've foreseen that!)

But Alcorn's most damning evidence was that the Sept. 26 Onion, the first issued after the attacks, did not make fun of George Bush. Can you imagine? Here, the most devastating attack on the US mainland in almost 200 years, and the Onion decides there are juicier targets to go after than Shrub. Well, take away my First Amendment and call me Stalin. That's it for the great democratic experiment, folks. It was fun while it lasted. Might as well auction off the monuments. (Her September 11 articles had her practically pissing herself with schadenfreude, too.)

The other two broadsheets we got in Sydney were Melbourne's The Age and The Australian, which weren't much better. (The Australian runs Tim Blair as a token right-winger.

Now, Tim used to work for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and defends it against charges of being a daggy tabloid. Sadly, I must disagree. The Daily Telegraph runs mawkish articles and pandering headlines. There'd usually be a story designed to arouse some strong emotion on the front page, which was about 2/3 photograph, then a continuation on page 2 and on page 3 we have the jolly article about the crooks who stole a semi load of Midori and were discovered when they couldn't back the semi into their suburban driveway without waking the neighbors. Howls of derisive laughter, Bruce! The news thus dispensed with, we can get right on to the vital footy.

(I confess I enjoyed their headline after the home video of Bin Laden visiting the sheik was released: YOU BASTARD, it read, under a picture of the burning WTC. I saved that one.)

So I was very glad to come home to newspapers which at least seem to dimly grasp that news and commentary should not mix, though the dullness of the Houston Chronicle is disappointing. Especially when compared to blogs. The Australian papers, however, found their highest calling as packing material for my stuff.

UPDATE: Jaysus, how could I forget the most important aspect: COMICS. Australian newspapers---maybe six, eight, strips. Houston Chronicle---almost three and a half pages of comic goodness. Sigh It's so good to be back in a country where they appreciate the finer things in life.