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The sacred cows frown when laugh’s on them



By now we’ve heard a lot – maybe too much – about the cartoon on the cover of the recent New Yorker magazine that depicts Barack and Michelle Obama as flag-burning Muslim black militants with a picture of Osama bin Laden on the wall.

Theories and stances on the cartoon have been profuse in recent days. One side of the argument takes great offense and insists that the line between satire and perpetuating absurdly false slanders has been crossed. The other pole in the media debate boils down to the idea that satire is by its very nature provocative, and if people can’t take a joke then it’s their problem.

I’m not going to weigh in on this controversy. It seems to be made in mass-media heaven so that journalists and satirists can interview each other and generate plenty of heat in the process. And, as an elected Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, I’m not exactly keen to jump into this one. But the uproar does give pause and make me wonder why the news media are so unwilling – and perhaps unable – to pick the low-hanging fruit of satire about themselves.

Aside from prime-time evening fare on the Comedy Central cable channel, media outlets’ attempts at parodies of each other tend to be tepid or clumsy. This does not have to be the case.

One of the biggest non-secret secrets of news media today is that they are – unintentionally and routinely – engaged in satirizing themselves.

On Fox News Channel, let’s assume that Bill O’Reilly is not consciously satirizing himself. But if he seems reasonable, credible and engaged in some kind of journalistic pursuit, then the line between satire and what we call the real media world has pretty much evaporated.

Well, unless you’re a rightwing ideologue, maybe that’s too easy an example. But if you listen to the flagship news programs of National Public Radio for an extended period of time, try stepping back from the smooth presentations of “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” to ask whether you might have become acculturated to forms and styles of media that use themselves as reference points – to a fault.

The ultimate conceit of journalists is that they’re letting us know what’s going on in the world. But, with the rare exceptions of the times when we’re actually eyewitnesses to “newsworthy” events, we don’t have the opportunity to experience “the news” firsthand. We don’t have a front-row or even backrow seat as events play out on the world stage.

So, we’re depending on media. And as we become accustomed to a media outlet that prompts us as to the meaning of events, we’re apt to let the journalists do our assessments for us. This is natural, but also insidious – especially because, the Internet notwithstanding, there are a few key media outlets that end up providing editorial and stylistic sensibilities to vast numbers of people.

An ultimate question has to do with the meaning of events. Just this morning, I heard a plug for “Morning Edition” from one of the program’s anchors, reassur- ing us that the show sifts through information to give us what’s most important and throws in a bit of analysis to tell us what the latest events mean.

Maybe that’s inevitable: We rely on particular sources of information and end up incorporating the worldviews of those who provide it into our own psyches. But that winnowing process can have us following the media leaders, even if they’re taking in circles that say more about them than about the world they’re purporting to illuminate.

What does all this have to do with satire? I’m glad you asked. The great press critic George Seldes said it well: “The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.” And sacred cows frown on substantive laughs about their own pretensions.

©2008 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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