'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."

But wait. The decision to treat UN membership for Palestine as the most relevant "larger issue" is itself a subjective judgment - one that the vast majority of news organizations made in their coverage. For The Daily Show, that judgment, advanced by the U.S. government and unconsciously accepted by news organizations, is itself absurd. They think the context, the bigger issue at stake, is the fate of the impoverished all over the world; the viability of the tsunami warning system; America's moral standing and international interests broadly rather than narrowly construed.

Journalists who cover government entities are habituated to see the world like the people they cover. They buy into entrenched institutions, their methods, and (problematically) their madness. For a Congressional reporter or a U.N. correspondent, international organizations and geopolitics routinely involves governments jockeying for advantage in ways that make a kind of sense if you obsessively follow the inside baseball and divorce it from real world consequences.

Whereas comedy writers at The Daily Show, who take the time to understand the inside baseball, nevertheless see things differently, for in the search for absurdity required of them, they're attuned to real world consequences, and uninclined to give establishment processes the benefits of any doubt. Transport a Politico reporter back to just before WWI and they'd cover the European system of alliances as insider realists, explaining to readers why each relationship made perfect sense. A Daily Show writer brought back to the same era would take a long look at geopolitics, study the insider dealings, and then irreverently ask, "So if these two little countries have a skirmish over an assassination you've all committed yourselves to a continent wide war? One that most of you would like to avoid and that has little prospect of making any of you better off? You're okay sending millions to their death if, say, a duke gets assassinated?"

Political satirists sometimes enjoy wider latitude than journalists. It's a distinct and vital genre for a reason. The press would nevertheless do well to step back, if only occasionally, and to look at the world as its seen from the Daily Show writers room, or the Onion headline writing desk. Satirists have a knack for hitting on angles that reporters miss due to excessively narrow framing. And deliberate temperamental irreverence is helpful if your job is to dispassionately observe.* In the aftermath of The Daily Show's UNESCO piece, its angle and value added has been praised in numerous journalistic outlets. Going forward, the press should try to recognize absurdity ahead of the satirists, and bring to ensuing coverage the rigor that is the journalistic comparative advantage.

*Note that this lesson applies even if, like David Frum, you're skeptical of UNESCO and think that international humanitarian organizations themselves would be good subjects for some pointed satire.