Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The "world's biggest burger" school of reporting about America

It is a sad fact that many Europeans like (and expect) to read stories from America about eating competitions, crazily religious people, Hollywood, and hypocrisy. I am a European myself and I know that these are many of the stories of America which I grew up reading in the UK and Irish papers. It gives a very distorted view of what life is really like in the US.

What are the only two US stories on the front of the Irish Independent (an Irish broadsheet newspaper) website today? Maybe (1) Bill Clinton freeing the two reporters in North Korea and (2) Obama's problems with healthcare reform? No. The two stories are:

1) Cheating hubby gets penis glued to stomach in revenge act
2) Michael Jackson 'killed by drugs given by aide as doctor slept'

These are the stories which people want to see about America, because it fits with preconceived ideas about what life is like in America.

Mark Little was the RTE (Irish Public TV) news reporter for the US. He wrote a book called "Turn left at Greenland - In search of the real America" which railed against the "Burger eating competition" view of America. I could see this myself when I was talking in 2007 to journalists covering the democratic primary in Austin, Texas. In Austin, who did they interview about Clinton versus Obama? Maybe some hipsters in an indie coffee shop (God knows there are plenty of them in Austin), or some businesspeople in Starbucks, or some baby boomers in a diner? No. They drove out to a rodeo where they interviewed a guy riding on a bull. Because this was what people expected Texas is like. This was the "average Texan" - a guy sitting on a bull. And he gave strongly anti-Clinton and anti-Obama views. If, as a European reporter, you interview 20 people about an issue and one person comes across as completely ignorant and uninformed, guess which person will turn up on TV? It'll be the clueless guy, as a representative of America. That is what sells on European TV.

So I was disappointed to see the same thing from Justin Webb of the BBC. Here is a snippit:

On the last day we spent in our home in north-east Washington, they were holding a food-eating competition in a burger bar at the end of our street. The sight was nauseating: acne-ridden youths, several already obese, stuffing meat and buns into their mouths while local television reporters, the women in dinky pastel suits, rushed around getting the best shots.

America can be seen as little more than an eating competition, a giant, gaudy, manic effort to stuff grease and gunge into already sated innards.

You could argue that the sub-prime mortgage crisis - the Ground Zero of the world recession - was caused mainly by greed: a lack of proportion, a lack of proper respect for the natural way of things that persuaded companies to stuff mortgages into the mouths of folks whose credit rating was always likely to induce an eventual spray of vomit.

There is an intellectual ugliness as well: a dark age lurking, even when the president has been to Harvard. The darkness epitomised by the recent death in Wisconsin of a little girl who should still be alive.

So there we get (a) the eating competition, and (b) the religious craziness (parents who would not get a doctor for their daughter for religious reasons). In other parts of the article you can read about political hypocrisy.

In my 8 or so years here, and many other trips before that, I have *never* seen an eating competition (I did see one in Dublin though, in my college years).

I often wonder does this type of commentary say more about Europe than it does about the US?

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