May 01, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

This time Chris wasn’t Masters-full

What was this week’s Four Corners all about? Chris Masters, an icon for investigative journalists in Australia, delivered a squishy program that was all fluff. Was it a travelogue about the gentrification of Harlem? Was it a very vague look at race relations in the US, 40 years after Martin Luther King’s death?
Perhaps there is something deeper going on, and Auntie is herself getting older, gentrified, and somewhat calcified by endless politicisation. Whatever it is, this is the second time recently that Four Corners has seemed more like a ‘postcard’ on Foreign Correspondent, during the super-fluffy days of Jennifer Byrne’s grinning tenure as host.
Easy to show multiple shots of young, white, attractive women in the cool Lenox Lounge, with the owner saying, ‘see, we’re now integrated’ (gee!) . Easy to have black, equally attractive, academics and well-connected community activists discussing the fringe issues. And very easy to cut to Oprah saying race isn’t why she is choosing Obama, ‘I’m better than that’. And indeed, she is.
But New York isn’t the US, and even in Manhattan the values are so far to the liberal side that the other boroughs are uncomfortable about some of the content on the community TV station. And while it might seem trivialising to say that race is a fringe issue in the US, what I’m getting at is that like binge-drinking stories here, it doesn’t cut to the chase of social and economic dynamics.
I watched the program, believing that Chris Masters would come up with something useful, so that I might understand the Obama phenomenon a bit better. But there was no enlightenment, not even a clear focus, or a persuasive narrative thread which might give a broader perspective on attitudes over there. Instead, I was drawn again to the analysis of Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine – the rise of disaster capitalism. She gives a clear narrative about economic might and its handmaiden, political repression. She goes through a number of case study countries: Chile, Argentina (which were both rapidly democratising and developing during the 70s and 80s), Poland, China, Russia, and I’m just coming to the chapter on Iraq.
She teases out, in well researched detail, how the West only considered the human rights abuses, while the economic ‘reforms’ of neo-liberalism ploughed ahead with US blessings. Did you know Milton Friedman was a consultant to Pinochet, before the overthrow of Allende? And that his Chicago trained Latino economists had a plan ready for the ‘shocks’ of privitisation? Clinton praised Yeltsin, and threw billions at him, even while the elected Russian parliament was being dissolved. We know what happened next, and Russian life expectancies reflect the carnage of their economic ‘reforms’. But hey, at least they have lots of billionaires now.
What does this have to do with our precious Auntie and our coverage of the US elections? Well, quite a bit. As the US clings tenuously to ‘positive’ growth, there is no one telling the story about exactly how much of the GDP is dependent on wars, past, present and future. Without military spending, where would their economy be? And how soon before it becomes so stretched that it just snaps?
We all understand now that people see Obama as somewho who can bring change. But Chris Masters missed a wonderful opportunity to tell us what that might mean, and who in fact needs to change. Try to tell poor folk that their jobs which depend on military contracts need to end. Try to tell rich folk, rather, that wouldn’t do at all. Tell us about the growth in income inequality, failing health care, crumbling infrastructure, and then ask: who and how will this be paid for and fixed? Give us something more than a story about big chains moving into Harlem, because oh dear, we’ve got the same story in Canberra, and the underlying power dimensions are also the same.
But without going beyond the surface to tell us who is controlling who, and who is contributing to Obama’s campaign, how can we know what is really going on?
My understanding is that Obama plans to expand the military; all 3 remaining serious candidates plan to do that. While reading Klein, I feel embarassed: why didn’t I know all this? How come I knew about Pinochet’s human rights crimes and the ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, but didn’t realise these were part of the plan to sell off their economies? How come I knew about the growing crisis of sustainability in first, second and third world countries, but not about how closely tied this is to the evil twins of privitisation and political repression? And while I knew the big global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank insist on these forms of ‘liberalisation’, I didn’t really grasp the extent to which they are always accompanied by force, to keep democracy from rearing its inconvenient head.
Often, when reading newspaper articles about conflicts, I wonder what is really going on, it all seems so confusing. Or so black and white. Neither is usually the case. Gradually I have come to understand that the reason I don’t know is that we aren’t being told, the narrative is usually somewhere else, with trivia or with a story of the developed countries, particularly the US, as saviours and bringers of democracy. (But never to Saudi Arabia). This puts me in John Pilger territory, and I find his books almost too depressing to read. But my fallback has been our public media.
For these reasons I donate to groups like Z-net, the Institute for Public Accuracy, and FAIR (fairness and accuracy in reporting). They are all US based, and maybe Australia needs our own versions, maybe Crikey is still filling this role. I know Graham Young has provided a valuable service, and he is a stayer. Maybe Chris Masters just needs to lift his game, or retire.
CODA: I was at uni in New Jersey when Martin Luther King was killed. All classes shut down, and students wore black arm bands. Living in a basement apartment, I remember hiding out while the windows were smashed in the black shops down the street. There were tanks on the suburban streets where my hippie boyfriend used to get macrobiotic veggies. In another dodgy flat, a converted butcher shop, where the cold store became a music room, we were kept awake by the endless rolling of dice from the crap games going on upstairs. I wonder how gentrified that area is now?

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 8:53 am | Comments (4) |


  1. “…But there was no enlightenment, not even a clear focus, or a persuasive narrative thread which might give a broader perspective on attitudes over there….”
    That’s exactly what I thought!

    Comment by Alan Davies — May 2, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  2. Having never been to the USA! my take was that was about the reincarnation of harlam.
    New generations and services? Like tracing the development of Kings Cross?
    Did I miss something?

    Comment by frank luff — May 2, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  3. I was really looking forward to the Four Corners expose on Obama and was really disappointed by the content of the show.
    This could of been a wonderful opportunity to showcase positive aspects Obama and the dawning of a new generation of U.S. politics. Four Corners rarely gets it wrong but this time was way of the mark.

    Comment by TammyJo — May 2, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  4. Hear! Hear! I wondered if I was only one who questioned the value of this program. The heart of it seemed to be the debate between two academics, east and west coast but hardly middle America. This was set against endless African-American cliches: black people singing, dancing and doing both in church.
    Obama’s secular evangelism has been caught up lately in the real thing. Unfortunately 4 Corners did not explore the person behind Barack or the nature of the US which he hopes to mould.

    Comment by Kevin Rennie — May 3, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.