'The Daily Show's' Advantage Over the MSM: An Eye for the Absurd

Its recent foray into long-form, satire infused reportage on UNESCO's defunding holds subtle lessons for the press. 

In the clip above, Jon Stewart prepares his audience at The Daily Show for an episode different than any they'd previously done. For once, the comedy program wouldn't feature a celebrity guest. It would instead broadcast a lengthy piece of satire-infused reportage on America's decision to defund UNESCO, a story that had been all but forgotten in the media. It wasn't a new story. The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO in October 2011 when the organization recognized Palestine as a participating member. In so doing, UNESCO had run afoul of a U.S. law that prohibits federal funds from going to any international organization that recognizes Palestine.

Implicit in The Daily Show's coverage is a statement that this story is more important than its obscurity suggests. UNESCO helps impoverished people to get clean water. It teaches them to read and educates them about the Holocaust. It empowers women in societies where they remain subject to horrific abuses. It is building an early tsunami warning system that could save hundreds of thousands of lives in a single natural disaster. The financial viability of these projects are threatened! But that threat alone wouldn't be a sufficient peg for a treatment on The Daily Show. The program requires an element of absurdity. Part II of The Daily Show's segment captures it:

There are actually several absurdities here. Among them:

  •  It's absurd to deprive impoverished people of basic education or safety from tsunamis or clean water because the humanitarian entity serving them took a position that has at most a negligible, symbolic impact on an intractable geopolitical stalemate.
  • Defunding UNESCO made the United States worse off in all sorts of ways, but we're doing it anyway because of the irrational politics that surround Israel-Palestine.
  • It made us specifically worse off in Iraq and Afghanistan, places where we've invested obscene amounts of blood and treasure. Strange that we'd let a largely symbolic controversy hurt our chances there.
  • Israel itself continues to fund the UNESCO project that it deems to be in its interests (e.g. Holocaust education).

While The Daily Show  thrives on highlighting absurdity, the American press is largely incapable of calling it out. To recognize and treat something as absurd is to render a judgment, to depart from what Jay Rosen calls "The View from Nowhere," and that traditionalists call "objective journalism." This CBS News story published when the defunding took place is professionally executed and representative of typical coverage. "The Obama administration on Monday cut off funding for the U.N. cultural agency, after its member countries defied an American warning and approved a Palestinian bid for full membership in the body," it begins. "The lopsided vote to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO, which only the United States and 13 other countries opposed, triggered a long-standing congressional ban on U.S. funding to U.N. bodies that recognize Palestine as a state before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached."

There isn't anything wrong with that excerpt, or with the balance of the story, which runs through the politics at play in international organizations. "The UNESCO vote was a fallback for the Palestinian leadership that presented its plan for U.N. recognition as a state and full membership in the global body in September," CBS reports later in its piece, adding context about the larger issues at stake. "Israel has fiercely opposed the bid, and it has no chance of passing because the Obama administration has promised to veto any resolution in the Security Council."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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