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MediaJune 20, 2017

What New Zealand looks like when you watch it on NBC


On Megyn Kelly’s new show Keith Morrison delivers a high-gloss paean to New Zealand, where US citizens are apparently flocking following the demise of the American dream. Branko Marcetic tunes in.

When former Fox News-host Megyn Kelly put out the third episode of her new NBC show, most probably expected they’d direct their outrage at her decision to give a platform to professional conspiracist and alleged performance artist Alex Jones. Not here in New Zealand.

For some presumably lighter fare to offset the experience of watching Jones grow as red as the false flag he sees when he closes his eyes every night, Kelly sent NBC reporter Keith Morrison to our shores for a travelogue-cum-exposé examining the growing trend of affluent, young, white Americans packing up and moving here.

At one point in the segment, titled “The Americans Are Coming: The Obsession with New Zealand”, Morrison intones to Sam Neill, over a glass of pinot noir: “Have you heard, that there’s a codeword for apocalypse insurance, and that’s ‘New Zealand’.”

Through the medium of endless helicopter shots and interviews with a diverse, full spectrum of white people — everything from beige to tan — Morrison conveys the magic of our fair land to the NBC viewership. So what exactly does New Zealand look like as filtered through the lens of Kelly’s team at NBC? In fact, we can break it down into numbers.

Landscape/helicopter shots of vistas: 32

The Kelly segment largely takes its cue from the “Air New Zealand safety video” school of filmmaking, stacking its 11-minute running time with sweeping helicopter shots and still landscapes from some of our most iconic locations, including Milford Sound, and Sam Neill’s house. This isn’t surprising: the segment leans on the classic trope of New Zealand as untouched paradise, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s part of an elaborate tourism campaign by the government. I’m half inclined to file an OIA request. Incidentally, there are no shots of the more than 60 percent of our rivers that are unfit for swimming in.

References to The Lord of the Rings: 1

Mercifully, Morrison and the producers kept the references to both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit to a minimum, though they did let one slip through at the start of the segment in what I assume is a contractual arrangement with the government for letting them film here. My wait for a reference to Bad Taste was in vain.

Keith Morrison with his NZ resident American travel blogger guide. Grab: NBC

Uses of the word “sheep”: 4

No foreign segment on New Zealand would be complete without a reference to sheep and our roughly six-to-one ratio of sheep to people, which Morrison notes roughly halfway through the segment with the bemused expression of someone who has just heard the “Who’s On First” routine for the first time ever at age 69. For the record, Australia has way more sheep than we do.

Bonus points for managing to cram footage of a bungee jump in there as well.

Mentions of work-life balance: 3

Now we come to the meat of the piece. Much of the segment focuses on how New Zealand represents a lost American ideal, namely the concept of attaining success through hard work and enjoying a good life. This is embodied by the idea of a “work-life balance,” something that a couple of Morrison’s interview subjects say is possible here in a way it’s not in the United States.

To be fair, this is undoubtedly true, with Americans increasingly scrambling to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and shave off colossal levels of debt, and in the only developed country in the world that doesn’t legally mandate holiday time.

Yet one doesn’t have to try hard to find cases right here in New Zealand of people working as much as 80 hours a week and barely getting by. If Morrison had expanded the diversity of his interview subjects, he might have stumbled upon such stories. Speaking of which…

Non-white people interviewed: 0

New Zealand is a diverse country, with Māori and Pacific peoples making up around 22 percent of our population, and Asian New Zealanders consisting of nearly 12 percent. Auckland, our biggest city, has the fourth largest foreign-born population in the world, with more than 220 ethnic groups.

‘It’s very consciously a nation of immigrants, like we used to think of ourselves’: Keith Morrison, NBC

But you would never guess it from this segment, which focuses exclusively on the experiences of white people in New Zealand, both Kiwi and American. In fact, you could almost count the number of non-white faces on one hand:

  • The Project’s Kanoa Lloyd and Josh Thomson make it in by virtue of Morrison visiting the set (only Lloyd gets to speak though).
  • Two women and a little girl on an Auckland ferry, offered as visual evidence that we are “a nation of immigrants, like [Americans] used to think of ourselves.”
  • A man fleetingly visible on the left side of the screen at around the 1:29 mark.
  • Er … Sam Neill recounts a Māori proverb at one point … does that count for something?

There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of 10 Māori men performing a haka roughly halfway through. Similar to the shot of the women on the ferry, the appearance is used to illustrate the fact that we’ve “retain[ed] indigenous Māori language and culture” — in other words, the men are used as props to illustrate a point.

It’s a shame, because had Morrison talked to some non-Pākehā Kiwis, he may have found some interesting perspectives, both on the experience of immigrating to New Zealand and on the ongoing arrival of foreigners to our shores and how it has impacted Māori culture, as well as the tension between immigration and historical Māori claims to land. Then again, I suspect such conversations would have also undercut the glossy, double page spread-like narrative being put forward here, which explains their absence.

The near uniform whiteness of the Kiwis who make an appearance is mirrored by the overwhelming whiteness of the American migrants being interviewed. This is probably not intentional. Racial disparities in the United States extend to overseas travel, for a variety of socioeconomic and historical reasons. One of the Americans interviewed, Morrison notes, left her job in finance to work as a barista here, suggesting the type of background necessary to decide to drop everything and move to a island 12,500 kilometres away.

All snark aside, the segment does hit at something deeper. While the Americans interviewed who have found a home here may be relatively privileged in the grand scheme of things, their discovery in New Zealand of the kind of life they were promised back home reflects the gradual hollowing out of the middle class and of economic opportunity that has taken place in the United States over the last few decades — one that was once solely reserved for the country’s poor and non-white populations.

“Any sort of business idea that you wanted to bring to the table could come to fruition,” says our finance-barista about the possibilities of her new home. “You work hard, and you do what you’re supposed to do, you can be successful.”

“Isn’t that what they used to call the American Dream?” quips Morrison.

Neill: ‘There’s an old Maori proverb, and it goes like this, ‘What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people. People are everything.’ Morrison, voiceover, to image of wine being poured: ‘Well, that and work-life balance, as they say’

And they’re right. While the many New Zealanders who are struggling to get on know things are far from perfect here, they’re no doubt a hell of a lot better on the whole than in the United States, where a confluence of factors has, for many ordinary Americans, made the idea of being justly rewarded for hard work a cruel joke.

Unfortunately, as the segment does note, Kiwis have increasingly felt the squeeze, and many have pointed the finger at foreigners.

“Do some New Zealanders blame the outsiders coming in for that … including those Americans?” asks Morrison.

“Yes, for sure,” a New Zealander tells him.

But we shouldn’t waste our outrage blaming young American travelers coming to our shores with a backpack, a passport and a sense of adventure for our problems. After all, this is the same thing many thousands of young Kiwis do every year.

If we’re going to direct our ire, it should be at the gross inequalities that surround immigration to this country — the papering over of which is maybe the segment’s biggest failure.

New Zealand is an “uncommonly welcoming place”, Morrison tells us. We’re told that people regularly decide “to stay, to live, to buy land” here, and that “New Zealand has made it easy” to emigrate. But how true is that?

As the segment notes, last year, the government tightened the number of residency permits it was giving out, including temporarily cutting off the ability of parents’ migrants to move here. The opposition is likewise campaigning on reducing immigration numbers. Like many, I meet people all the time who live with the ever-present threat of having to be sent packing because they can’t secure a visa, some of whom have simply stopped trying. And, of course, the number of refugees we accept is still laughably small, not to mention possibly racist. That’s not even to mention the impossible expense of buying land if you did manage to find a way to stay.

These problems don’t exist if you have the right amount of money. We have an entire visa category that exists to fast-track residency to millionaires and billionaires like Kim Dotcom. Cyberpunk vampire Peter Thiel donated $1 million — or around 0.04% of his $2.7 billion net worth — to the Canterbury rebuild, and was subsequently granted citizenship despite barely setting foot in New Zealand.

As long as these conditions exist, young foreigners looking for an escape from the world’s ills like those in this segment will never find the refuge they’re hoping for. But I shouldn’t keep harping on about it. I wouldn’t want to anyone to think New Zealanders aren’t laid back and relaxed.

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