New York Times Australia

It’s been exactly one year since The New York Times set up an Australian bureau in Sydney. And almost as long since some Australians began grumbling about it.

Grievances — mostly from local journos on social media — include perceptions the NYT is needlessly explaining Australia to Australians, engaging in parachute journalism, and not employing enough local journalists.

Most of the ire, however, seems to be directed firmly at the writing style and tone of bureau chief Damien Cave, mainly because of things like this:

Think of the neighborhood butchers. And the chemists. And, well, all the small storefront business, and the crowded shopping centers — this, my friends, is not the way Americans shop. Ordering online and waiting is the reality in cities across the United States, but here in this remarkably wealthy country, brick-and-mortar retail is still king.

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For his part, Cave admits to being flummoxed by the “combative response”.

“The vast majority of our stories are written by Australians, not Americans,” he informed me by email. “[But] our audience is global, not just local, and so we will occasionally explain things to the world that Australians already know about — to the chagrin of those who think it’s obvious to everyone, everywhere. For example, what Bunnings, a pokie, or a postal survey is.”

I’ve watched the drama unfold with a mixture of interest and amusement. Interest, because I’m a media criticism nerd (my academic research focusses on western media coverage of the Middle East); and amusement, because it was apparent to me quite early on that the NYT wasn’t doing anything in its coverage that English-language journalists don’t do as a matter of routine when covering foreign places.

What is Western objectivity?

If It Happened There, a now-sadly defunct satirical series on Slate penned by Joshua Keating, described events in America “using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries”. In other words, it showed Americans what an “otherised” America would look like.

This is how Keating “covered” the firing of James Comey:

The surprise dismissal of a powerful security services chief Tuesday night is widely seen here as a part of strongman President Donald Trump’s efforts to sideline critics and consolidate power, raising concerns about the state of democracy and the rule of law in this fragile but strategically vital North American country.

Keating is exaggerating, but not by much. And our own media takes a similar approach. Here is Fairfax Media’s Farid Farid explaining Iran:

Iran’s sphere of influence has also widened in recent years. Its longstanding funding for the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and concomitant support for the Assad regime in Syria has been added to as it reinforces the Iraqi army and Shiite militias in their fight against Islamic State and provides logistical support to the insurgent Houthis in Yemen.

Although tempting to put this down to a problem of western journalism, Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara argues that, when it comes to the coverage of the African continent, journalists from other African nations also tend to report with a lack of nuance and context, they just don’t attract the same level of scrutiny as western outlets.

“While Africans in almost every country on the continent have opportunity to be regularly appalled by their portrayal on CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC,” he explains, “it is rare that Kenyans will flip the channel to check what Nigerian journalists are reporting about them.”

Gathara does add the caveat that the offending African journalists seem to be taking their cues from their western counterparts, applying western perceptions of Africa as fact rather than interpretation. The dangers of which, of course, were spelled out to us 40 years ago by Edward Said in Orientalism.

The question then, is not what is the NYT doing wrong, but, are current western media conventions adequate for covering foreign places fairly and without making the local population cringe?

The West vs The Rest

“Australian readers overall have been responding positively,” Cave says. He notes subscriptions from Australia have more than doubled since the bureau opened, indicating the resistance is coming mostly from some corners of the media itself (one Australian headline referred to it as “The New York Times of Our Lives”).

BuzzFeed editor, and former NYT contributor, Christine Kenneally, concurs. “Perfectly reasonable, good will statements, stories, and questions are taken as offensive or patronising,” she told me by email. “Perhaps this is too simplistic but it seems there’s a misperception that the NYT considers itself somehow superior to the local press.”

But is this a simplistic assessment? Regardless of the NYT‘s benign intentions, perhaps what is happening here is that Australian readers seem more comfortable with the NYT than Australian journalists do because readers implicitly understand that, in this specific instance at least, what they are reading is an interpretation of reality, rather than the real thing. Journalists, on the other hand, seem less than thrilled at the prospect of having their own journalism reflected back at them.

My family hails from the Levant and I’m accustomed to (though no less frustrated by) coverage of the Syrian war written by journalists and “experts” that frequently follows a cringeworthy western conceit. People and places they are visiting (or in the case of Syria, not even visiting) are described with such detached certainty it recalls Said’s scathing assessment that western writers on the Middle East are convinced they know Arabs better than Arabs could ever know themselves. The presumption being that only the West can be “objective”. Who said so? The West, of course. If anything, the NYT‘s Australian coverage is far less objectionable given the stakes are not exactly high. 

In a world long ago divided into the “West” and the “Rest”, what some Australian journalists are suddenly, unexpectedly, and unintentionally experiencing is that sensation of what it feels likes to be part of the Rest, to be spoken about rather than doing the speaking for others. Unsurprisingly, they don’t like it one little bit.

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