Bill Bryson, in his book In A Sunburned Country (which I’ve quoted here before), begins his very first chapter talking about how ignorant Americans are of Australian affairs. Why? Because Australia is mostly empty, a long way away, has a small population, and doesn’t produce anything that Americans can’t really live without (boomerangs?) “Above all, Australia doesn’t misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.” So, yeah, not very newsworthy I suppose. Bryson goes on to analyze the New York Times to see how many times Australia was featured in a given year. In 1997, the Times ran 20 articles that were about Australian affairs. For Israel, that number was 500. There were 300 on each of the Koreas, 150 on both Albania and Cambodia, and more articles on balloons, Scientology, dogs, and ice cream than there were on Oz. He picked a good year. Going one year back or one year ahead, those 20 articles drop to just 9 and 6, respectively. I would venture to guess that 95% of Americans probably don’t know what the capital of Australia is and nearly all of them think Aussies ride their kangaroos to work.
And then there’s the flip side. Down under, 95% of the population would most certainly know what the capital of the United States is. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to assume that the percentage of Aussies who know the capital of the U.S. is probably higher than the percentage of Americans who know their own national capital in some of the more red leaning U.S. states – you know, the ones which have stellar education systems thanks to their Republican-controlled legislatures. I’m looking at you, Mississippi and Kansas. And yes, I’m finding that a majority of Aussies think that most Americans carry guns around with them and have shoot outs randomly in the streets and at Chili’s and at Macy’s and that’s about as ridiculous as the whole riding-a-kangaroo-to-work perception, but I’ve made good ground in my mission to advise every single Australian that gun-toting crazies predominantly only exist in Texas and Oklahoma.
But the real reason for tonight’s blog entry: the news. While Americans get little to no news about Australia, the exact opposite situation occurs here. And never before has it been so apparent to me than it has been these past two weeks. Since the end of October, the U.S. has dominated Australian media like I have never seen before. And it all started with a bitch named Sandy.
Superstorm Sandy, or Newsstorm Sandy as I like to call it here in Australia, was bigger on Australian news outlets than I could have ever imagined. Coverage was non-stop for days – in newspapers, on the internet, and every single TV channel. Australian television instantaneously turned into The Weather Channel. Much of the news focused on Australian interests: how the Australian embassy was shutting down in Washington DC, how that infamous dangling crane in Manhattan is part of a project financed by an Australian company, and interviews with countless Australians who live in New York – with reporter after reporter venturing into random expat apartments to film their bathtubs full of water. Seriously. I sort of had to giggle, but the Aussies turned it around with the rest of their coverage – in depth and shocking at times as they showed the devastation across the Northeast. Many friends, co-workers, and clients asked if I knew anyone affected and seemed genuine in their concern.
I know that the big Australian floods in Queensland made news in the States – I had several friends and family members asking me about it when it happened – but I can’t imagine that the Queensland floods were more than a quick mention on the local evening news or a scrolling story on the ticker at the bottom of your screen while watching CNN. But here in Oz, Newsstorm Sandy was more than a quick mention, and it was more than just a story on the ticker. It was the dominant news story in Australia for days. I’ve seen it before with pop culture and travel and such, but watching Newsstorm Sandy really gave me a clearer vision of the disparity between Aussies’ and Americans’ levels of engagement with the outside world. Incredible.
It started with Sandy, but it continued with Obama. Tuesday and Wednesday in Australia were dominated with news of the American presidential election. Now, Americans, please take a minute to complete my quick survey:
1. Can you name the Prime Minister of Australia?
2. Can you name any Prime Minister of Australia, ever?
3. Can you tell me when the last election was in Australia?
4. Do you know anything about the Australian political system?
5. Have you ever seen news about an Australian election on TV?
Even for the more educated and worldly Americans, I reckon the majority of you will answer “no” to each and every question above. But give Australians the reverse quiz about the U.S. and the majority will probably be able to answer “yes” to most or all of those questions.
Yesterday’s news mentioned the impending election constantly, but today was just a shock: a full day of coverage on many of the major networks here in Australia. There were Australian reporters live in the U.S., and plenty of American news programs were being streamed live here on Australian networks too. Of course, just like with Sandy, they had to Aussie it up a bit with a full report from the big election party at the American consulate here in Sydney. While at home tonight watching my normal TV programs, the news keep cutting in with little snippets like “President Obama wins a second term as President of the United States. Details at 11.” Can you imagine this happening during American Idol? “Julia Gillard is elected Australia’s first female Prime Minster. Details at 11.” And every American watching would be like “What the fuck is a Prime Minister? Is she a Protestant?”
The strangest part: so many people at work were interested in knowing all about it. It was on all day in our kitchen at the office, and people kept stopping in to check on the latest. I fielded several questions from co-workers, most of them jokingly asking me who I voted for – jokingly because they obviously knew the candidates and they obviously had a pretty darn good idea of which one I would be throwing my support behind. They knew all about Romney and some of them even knew about those two Republican Senate candidates who made obscene statements about rape. That’s not helping with stereotypes, by the way. Had this been the reverse situation – an Aussie expat working in America – that Aussie wouldn’t have fielded one question about the Aussie election, mainly because Americans wouldn’t have had a clue that there was an election, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know who is running, and even in the very unlikely event that they saw the candidates’ names on the news the night before, they would have no idea what party they belonged to or what their positions on the issues were (or even what the issues were themselves).
It’s amazing how much Australia is paying attention to the United States, and how little that is exchanged in the reverse.
To truly exemplify this, I present to you Exhibit A: tonight’s big finale of Big Brother Australia, Season 9. After nearly 3 months sequestered in the Big Brother House with no contact at all with the outside world, the final two contestants were shown a compilation of video clips about all of the major news events that had occurred since they entered the house in early August. The very first one in the reel: Superstorm Sandy. And the contestants’ faces just looked horrified. After some trashy celebrity stories about who married who and who is getting divorced in Hollywood and Lance Armstrong being a cheat and fraud, the news reel included a snippet about President Obama being re-elected. Both Sandy and Obama were mentioned before there was any mention whatsoever of the AFL and NRL Grand Finals – the two biggest sporting events in Australia – like the Super Bowl and World Series of Australia but for different sports obviously. Those events are HUGE in Australia, but Sandy and Obama both trumped them. In fact, there were more news clips on American affairs in the news reel than there were about Australian affairs in the news reel. I’m assuming there is a similar news reel type of thing in the American version of Big Brother, and I am confident that no story on Australia or anything Australian has ever been featured at all in that news reel. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Americans: the next time you turn on your news channel, just wait for it. Wait for any mention of Australia whatsoever. And then message me and let me know how long it actually took you to hear something. I fully expect to hear from you on January 1st when the annual video of the New Year’s fireworks shooting off the Sydney Harbour Bridge is broadcast around the world. Until then, know that when I turn on the TV here, it will only take me a matter of minutes – or even seconds – before I hear something about the United States.
Big brother is watching you, America.
And apparently, big brother has roughly 23 million Australian accents.