And they think I'm slow, eh


The first foreign visit President Barack Obama made as our country's head of state was to Canada. In his joint press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the two men reaffirmed our two nations' common economic, military, cultural and political links that intimately tie us together. It is easy to see where this is coming from, considering how both countries share the same long border, blackouts, recessions and plastic Hollywood teen actors.

The press coverage of the president's visit was a considerable headline for that news cycle. Coverage mentioned the relative brevity of the visit, the president's Canadian relatives, and the Canadians who traveled south of their border to volunteer for Obama in our election. We got a general idea of the relative significance or insignificance of the visit.

If we were to take Obama and Harper's words on the relationship between the two countries seriously, it would be surprising to see how little our media, and therefore, our radar was on Canada during recent considerable headlines and events.

Canada went through a considerable political crisis late last year. Prime Minister Harper, who governed from the Conservative Party's plurality of seats in Parliament, was in danger of receiving a vote of no confidence by a coalition made out of the Liberal Party, New Democratic Party, and Bloc Québécois. In order to avoid the vote, Harper requested the governor general, the Queen's representative — yes, that queen — in Canada, to prorogue the parliament. Governor General Michaëlle Jean granted that request, and the Parliament was suspended for almost two months. The dispute calmed down during this period and Harper presently seems to be in no immediate danger of losing his office.

Chances are, in this short summary of the dispute, I inadvertently misrepresented the events and the basics of the political process in Canada, but that only validates how little we have been conditioned to understand about our northern neighbor. It is surprising that I was even aware that the Conservative government was re-elected just only a few weeks prior.

The few short days the Parliament was prorogued, I asked a few friends and family of mine if they picked up on the existence of that event, but it seemed to have missed their radar. These people are neither apathetic nor ignorant. I first only heard of the story through Internet message boards and the current events column on Wikipedia's main page. After attempting to explain the saga with my very limited knowledge of Canadian politics and civics, they agreed with me that while the story was not of an extremely strong concern for an American audience, it was significant enough that they should have heard more on the matter for at least that news cycle.

Obviously, domestic news stories should take priority over foreign news stories. California's 2003 gubernatorial recall election, even if it lacked the star power of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was worth covering because it ultimately did lead to a removal of a crucial office holder in the union's most populous state. The scandals that ended the political careers of Governors Rod Blagojevich, Eliot Spitzer and Jim McGreevey were on a technical level significant enough, yet the details of sex or corruption helped make them grab-the-popcorn sensations before we got sick of all of them. The national media forced the rather boring shutdown of New Jersey's government in 2006 into a nation-wide story by panicking over Atlantic City's casinos.

The question is how big a difference is the newsworthiness threshold for a foreign news story regarding the status of the ruling government compared to the preceding examples. If the issue is laziness, it is puzzling to see the lack of coverage of Ottowa politics when that capital city rests barely outside New York. It also doesn't explain why we had an army of news teams in Juneau to film the governor of Alaska walk back into her office after losing the vice presidency, which was an equally contrived yet much less significant event. A screenshot of MSNBC.com on the American news cycle of the prorogation shows the article regarding it nearly below-the-scroll, and it was from a wire service. A travel story regarding a Canadian court's ruling over airlines' discrimination of obese passengers took a glorified spot near the top of the main page, presumably because this story affects how Americans will fly there.

The news should not take a narrow standard in determining when a foreign story affects the U.S. We can write all the dumb jokes we want about Canadians in the comfort of a campus men's room toilet stall — I do not condone it — but ultimately who is at the top of the government of a neighboring nation is in our serious interest especially if that government is in NAFTA, NATO and the G8. By the way, do we know anything about how the Mexican president is doing, besides how he visited New Brunswick a few months back? I needed to type "Mexico" into a search engine just to remember his name. Considering the decisions he must be making over immigration, trade, security and drug law enforcement, it could help to hear more about our other neighbors' headlines too.

It would be a noble thing if our news gives coverage to stories in more countries, even when it is not directly evident how it will affect us. I am not just referring to nations of proximity convenience or countries we are thinking of invading. But the reality of media downsizing continues to be a progressing trend. The bandwagon known as the national media has always flirted with telling the sensational story over what we ought to know. We will never be at that point where every news story around the globe gets its fifteen minutes of fame in the U.S., but being conscious of our immediate neighbor can be a start. 

Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays


Roger Sheng

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