For years I've been trying to figure out who made this point: all satire is a shared joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person — the dupe — who takes it literally. The existence of that third person is a specifically contemplated feature, not a bug.
This is so both as a matter of law and as a matter of art.
Yesterday Esquire ran a satirical column in the voice of Jeff Jarvis. It's not up at Esquire any more, but you can see it here. The satire — penned by Rurik Bradbury, long-time Twitter satirist of Jarvis — mocked the pretense and vapidity of modern internet-changes-everything blather. To my taste, the satirical nature is quite clear:
The Innovation Party will be phablet-first, and communicate only via push notifications to smartphones. The only deals it cuts will be with Apple and Google, not with special interests. We will integrate natively with iOS and Android, and spread the message using emojis and GIFs, rather than the earth-killing longform print mailers of yesteryear. This will give us direct access to netizens, so we can be more responsive than any political party in history.
But tastes differ. Jeff Jarvis thought it was not clear and not permissible:
Esquire subsequently altered the piece to make the satire more explain-the-joke-to-you explicit, then axed it completely without explanation. Both Esquire and Jarvis have their supporters and detractors, and Jarvis wrote an angry post expressing outrage that he continues to be the object of satire.
There are many pieces of this. One is legal. That piece is very easy.
Bradbury's Esquire satire is very clearly protected by the First Amendment. I wrote about a case frighteningly on point. Esquire previously did a satirical article with mock quotes from Joseph Farah of WorldNet Daily and author Jerome Corsi. They sued, claiming defamation. The United States Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit crushed their arguments. Remember: only things that could reasonably be understood as provably false statements of fact can be defamatory. Satire is not a statement of fact. In deciding whether something could reasonably be taken as an assertion of fact rather than satire, courts look to what an audience familiar with the publication and players would understand. Said the Court:
The article’s primary intended audience — that is, readers of “The Politics Blog” — would have been familiar with Esquire’s history of publishing
satirical stories, with recent topics ranging from Osama Bin Laden’s television-watching habits to “Sex Tips from Donald Rumsfeld.” See Findikyan Decl. Exs. 35–42. At the same time, followers of “The Politics Blog” were politically informed readers.
. . . .
With that baseline of knowledge, reasonable readers of “The Politics Blog” would recognize the prominent indicia of satire in the Warren article.
In other words, the notion that Jarvis is silly and his views mockable may be inside baseball, but the relevant question is whether readers familiar with that inside baseball would recognize it.1
The fact that some people — inattentive people or people unfamiliar with the subject matter — may take the satire literally does not stop it from being satire. It's expected, the Court explained:
But it is the nature of satire that not everyone “gets it” immediately. For example, when Daniel Defoe first published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, an anonymous satirical pamphlet against religious persecution, it was initially welcomed by the church establishment Defoe sought to ridicule. See JAMES SUTHERLAND,ENGLISH SATIRE 83–84 (1958). Similarly, Benjamin Franklin’s “Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” a fictitious news story mocking New England’s harsh treatment of unwed mothers, was widely republished in both England and the United States as actual news. See MAX HALL, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN & POLLY BAKER:THE HISTORY OF A LITERARY DECEPTION 33–35, 87–88 (1960).
Again, the joke is not only at the expense of Jeff Jarvis. The joke is, in part, at the expense of people who read carelessly. The joke is "Jeff Jarvis is silly, and by God, so is our society." The root of all comedy is human fallibility, and this article is funny in part because even though it's on a site known for satire by a frequent writer of satire in the voice of a frequent target of satire using exaggerated satirical arguments some people will still be inattentive, uninformed, or simply dumb enough to fall for it. That's why Jarvis's defenders are flat-out wrong when they say silly things like "It's the knowledge that something is satire that makes it satire in the first place."
Legally, this is not a close call.
What about morally? Jarvis and his supporters suggest that it's unethical for journalists to run satirical pieces written in somebody's name. It's not a new argument. Meghan McCain freaked out over apt satire of her writing voice. Visitors here occasionally become indignant over satire. People may get upset because satire written in the target's own voice is so effective against both of its targets. It illuminates the silliness of the person it is aping, and the more people fall for it the more powerful the argument that the mockery is on target. It strikes at the heart of the pretense of internet denizens – that they are well-informed and understand what the hell is going on.
Could there be satire that is unethical because it is genuinely deceptive? I suppose so. (Hopefully not here.) But I think it would have to be a genuine attempt to deceive by a publication not known for satire — something where the publication should expect that even reasonable inquiry and thought would not reveal it. This is not such a case. Esquire is known for satire. Bradbury is know for satirizing Jarvis and Jarvis is known for being satirized. The text of the satire was, well, overtly satirical. And as Bradbury told me, "[T]he bio stated specifically that this person was "not @Jeffjarvis", and the author photo was wearing both a beer helmet and a Santa hat, in late April.""
I don't think ethics prohibit a magazine known for satire from engaging in satire. I don't think ethics prohibit magazines from ridicule, even if that ridicule is part of a pattern. I don't think ethics require satirists to pitch to the lowest possible common denominator, to make their satire ABC-at-8:00-PM obvious. Ethics doesn't require catering to carelessness or foolishness or ignorance. If anything, it's unethical for the media to encourage those bad traits by dumbing down the ancient, deadly, and noble art of satire. One of the Bad Things about the internet is that people foolishly fail to exercise critical thinking about things they find on it. I don't share an ethical viewpoint that indulges and even encourages that trend.
Satire is a matter of taste. If Esquire decided this wasn't to their taste after all, that's their right, although the sequence of events makes them look foolish. But if Esquire caved to explicit or implicit legal threats, or to feckless arguments about journalistic ethics that undermine the very notion of satire, then shame on them.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- No, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Shouldn't Sue Over "Fake News" - February 20th, 2017
- Lawsplainer: The Eleventh Circuit Protects Doctors' Right To Ask About Guns - February 17th, 2017
- Eleventh Circuit Revisits Florida Law Banning Doctors From Asking About Guns, And I Can't Even - February 16th, 2017
- Erdoğan and the European View of Free Speech - February 10th, 2017
- Still Annoying After All These Years: A Petty Government Story - February 9th, 2017