Why is Syria Flummoxing American Satirists?

Thursday, September 05, 2013 - 10:47 AM

(The Daily Show)

It's hard to talk about the ideas or politics behind comedy news, because while we all know that they're important and influential, we also know that because they're entertainment, you can't talk seriously about them without sounding like a dummy. So let's sound like dummies for a moment!

Jon Stewart came back from hiatus this week with a long on-air essay about why the U.S. shouldn't intervene.


It's a strange segment to watch. There's a real cringer of a riff about Sarin gas deaths in Syria, where Stewart advertises a fake perfume called Signatures of Sarin. It's discordant in a way the Daily Show rarely is. But more broadly, the segment seems to illustrate that this form Stewart's usually so good at -- the comedic polemic -- might just not fit the topic, which is so sad and complicated. (WaPo's Max Fisher has a nice piece going into more detail about how Stewart's long case against intervention frames the case wrongly.) 

Surprisingly, The Onion hit the same pitfalls while taking the opposite tack. Stewart's a dove on Syria, The Onion's a hawk. As Dave Weigel pointed out, America's Finest News Source has published a litany of articles premised on the idea that intervention is clearly the only moral choice:  ‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed”“Obama Deeply Concerned After Syrians Gassed To Death On White House Lawn”“‘Syrians’ Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight.” The Onion's Syria articles feel like the wrong kind of juvenile -- the case for war as understood by a neocon college Freshman.  

I think both approaches are clanging here because they share a moral certainty that seems unearned. Smart, ethical people across the political spectrum are having a hard time figuring out what the U.S. can and should do in Syria. There's something strangely cable news-y about seeing a gray question dealt with in such black-and-white terms. 


UPDATE: I talked to John Hockenberry about this on The Takeaway. Audio's here, if you'd like it.  



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Comments [6]

Benoit Balz from Wnyc

OTM continues its center-right turn. Get ready for another appearance of Gabriel Schoenfeld...

Interesting to see OTM listeners perceiving shades (or worse) of propaganda on recent shows. When something walks and quacks like a duck, it could be a duck. Would be more interesting to see how the OTM sausage is made and if there are any puppet strings being pulled regarding the "story ideas".

And yes, I am serious. NPR's news shows have become talking points clearinghouses, it would be no surprise if Garfield and Brooke are complicit too.

Jon Stewart and the Onion expose the absurdity and manipulation of US policy. Why should they, as satirists, hold themselves to Bob Garfield's standards of "intellectual honesty" when their subject matter is the blatant propaganda and dishonesty of American "leaders"?

Notice also how the gassing footage and popped up and immediately ran on all media outlets. What happened to the footage of ten-plus years of Iraqi, Afghan, and American Hero deaths??

Sep. 10 2013 07:18 PM
Robert from Minneapolis

A rare swing and a miss for the OTM show. I'm hardly a Daily Show apologist but your coverage was just a bit tone deaf as to the point DS was making. The media coverage you and the guest were so enamored with totally was devoid of what Jon so rightly pointed out. Our history of using the ugliest of weapons is undeniable. White phosphorous "shake and bake" burns the skin to the bone and is used, in the words of our military, to "terrorize the enemy". How you can dismiss the question of moral authority and replace it with "the world can't stand by" rhetoric is strange to say the least. If we are really concerned about the killing of civilians perhaps we could reflect on our use of "double tap" drone strategies. The report from Stanford/NYU says that for every 50 people killed by US drone strikes 49 are civilians.
I won't say this is all the same as Iraq but it is similar to our past behavior.

Sep. 10 2013 02:45 PM
Airie Mann from Urbana, IL

Really disappointed by this report of skewed and partisan mainstream media coverage on the brewing attacks the US will be taking on Syria. Focusing on The Onion and Jon Stewart as arbitrary media foils here, and as examples of overall news reporting happened, um, exactly why? Unconfirmed reports continue to flow out to the public from media sources alleging citizen gassing at the hands of Syrian officals, but, to you, this is a non-issue when Jon Stewart is poorly nuanced in his non-support of military intervention? Clearly, these are the important aspects of this issue you focused in upon. Really outraged by this poor excuse of supposedly "critical" analysis of the media-mediated messages at hand as we move toward another war based on strategically dripped "America, the protector" narratives and classified, but highly-hyped, evidence justifying continued US military aggression. I expected better. Clearly, poor judgement on my behalf.

Sep. 09 2013 03:51 PM
JC Harris

Couldn't agree more. What has struck me is how little discussion there has been -anywhere- that is not 100% cynical and/or starts with the premise that -the- most important motivation is somehow how it affects the US.

I'm surprised that no one takes the Occam Razor approach: Obama may want to try to do -something- simply because he thinks it's a moral thing to do. You may agree, disagree, but there it is.

But there is almost no talk about that. Everything I read on both sides is trying to puzzle out 'what is he -thinking-?'. When it may be as simple as that. Again, that may come off as naive, but perhaps Obama is like Clinton---doesn't want to see another Rwanda. The results may be pointless, but some Christians would say... regardless, ya gotta try.

Sep. 08 2013 09:27 PM
Tom Roche from Carrboro

You're wrong on at least 3 levels. (There are more, but commenters are enjoined to "be brief.")

Firstly, you're wrong aesthetically. Stewart's bit about organic, free-range lead ordnance *is* funny, which perception may be due to my anti-US-intervention position on this matter--but even given that, I'd hafta say, the Onion's bit about Obama's chagrin @ Syrians gassed on the White House lawn is funny, too. I suspect you're forcing your conflictedness (the motivation for which bears commenting upon, but one must be brief) to override your sense of humor.

More fundamentally, you're missing the point of these channels, which is to ... wait for it ... deliver satire! Empirically, satire is made by angry people convinced of the illegitimacy of their targets. ("Gentle satire" is usually poor satire. This is an empirical claim, so feel free to contradict.) When Swift made "A Modest Proposal," he was mocking the evil of English pretense and policy in Ireland--not pretending to give "fair and balanced" advice. You might have better argued that Syria is not fit for comedy, though you'd still be wrong. (*Everything* is "fair game" for the human sense of humor.) Instead, you seem to argue that Stewart and the Onion should deliver both satire *and* the on-the-nth-hand-ed journalism of the conflicted, which is simply a category mistake.

Thirdly, your statement (in the interview with Garfield on OTM @ http://www.onthemedia.org/audio/m3u/316772/ ) that "maybe we don't want to live in a world where tyrants are allowed to gas their own people, and maybe it's worth intervening for that reason," has seriously flawed reasoning. (Note that one of the ways in which the corporate-funded media (CFM) coverage of Syria is so very like its coverage of Iraq (contrary to the Fisher interview @ http://www.onthemedia.org/audio/m3u/316733/ ) is the repetition of deceptive arguments.) Usually, CFM first makes the claim (very likely empirically true) that chemical weapons were used in Syria (you omit this, but obviously consider it true), then leaps to the conclusion that Assad used them, then further that the US must therefore attack Assad--conveniently omitting several premises in the "syllogism" :-) Since you demand brevity, I'll just note the most significant open question, did *Syrian government forces* commit that attack? There is no public evidence: as Rumsfeld--oops! I mean, Chuck Hagel--says, "that's classified," and there are good reasons to doubt the secret "evidence." (Hear Gareth Porter's piece in this week's CounterSpin @ http://fair.org/counterspin-radio/gareth-porter-on-syrian-intelligence-mary-bottari-on-larry-summers/ ) For a more complete deflation of your position, see the angry, unconflicted Alan Grayson on Democracy Now! (transcript, audio, and video @ http://www.democracynow.org/2013/9/5/rep_alan_grayson_on_syria_congress ): "It’s not our responsibility, it’s not going to do any good, it’s expensive, and it’s dangerous."

Sep. 07 2013 01:41 PM
Bryce Butler from Baltimore

WTF OTM? Your idea of nuanced coverage of the media drumbeat for intervention in Syria is to do one interview to make broad declarations about how nuanced the media coverage has been and how this time is different from Iraq. ( I was so reassured by these assertions)

Then an extended take down of Jon Stewart and the responsibilities of comedy during this "crisis" and how Stewart was really Jonny One Note and therefore irresponsible. Oh and just slipping in an aside about The Onion. I'm sure Mr. Stewart will be flattered with this new eminence you've assigned him. Meanwhile the drumbeat for war generated by the intense hourly coverage and punditry and constant reference to gassed children from the White House is totally ignored by you. McLuhan was right.

How was it you interviewed your friend, Mark Leibovich, without discussing how isolated Washington is from the country, especially in relation to the intervention in Syria.

When missiles are launched at Syria, as they surely will be, at least you folks will have done your part with your addition of such nuanced coverage to the current "debate".

Sep. 07 2013 07:13 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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