It was Australian actor, author, and comedian extraordinaire, Barry Humphries (whose gifts to the world include the larger-than-life Dame Edna Everage, among others), who made the following pithy observation:
It is this shared sentiment – one of despair at the misapprehension of satire, its importance in calling out demagoguery and ills in general, and the ever-present possibility of its erosion in the face of popular obtuseness – that got me in a bit of a rage this week, on discovering the palliative efforts of an American academic in combatting public credulity. Relevant, particularly, in the wake of the muck-fest of misinformation that was the 2016 US presidential race.
Melissa Zimdars, who is an assistant professor of communications at Massachusetts’ Merrimack College, compiled and put out a list of, for want of a better term, “faulty” news sites, the reporting of which people took and take at face value, with not a jot of critical scrutiny. (She has made the list publicly available on Google Docs, and it is on its way to becoming respectably viral.) While it’s hard to find a news provider that is truly non-partisan, even among mainstream news sources, I won’t hide the fact that, initially, I was angry at the inclusion in this list of, among others, The Onion, a purveyor of many a laugh for nearly as long as I can remember. Here’s a screen-grab of her criteria:
In my view, sites like these are less at fault than are the people reading them. As reported in the LA Times, both Facebook and Google have announced their intention to clamp down on fake news sites (a gesture that is largely symbolic, however, as the plan is to block the sites from using the networks’ advertising features – not to ban them from users’ newsfeeds). It’s a sad indictment of our educational standards when satirical writing or any other type of satirical output needs to be red-flagged because people are too ignorant to recognise it as such. (I’m referring specifically to satirical work within one’s country, culture, or in one’s language of reference; where satire is mistaken for truth by non-native speakers or those from a different country or culture altogether – as happened in Iran, a few years back – then I can be more understanding.)
No outright ban on satire is being proposed, of course. At the very least, such a stricture would be virtually unenforceable, not to mention in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is just regrettable that the baby that is satire should be thrown out with the bathwater that is clickoholic yellow journalism, forming as it does a vital part not just of entertainment, but of public discourse and social commentary in the Western intellectual tradition.
As I have lamented here and there, the “Fourth Estate” has an important role to play in shaping public opinion, but standards of journalistic integrity are often lax, to say the least. This does not detract, however, from the responsibility we as consumers of news should feel in reading with reality-tinted spectacles. I think it not too much of a stretch to suggest that, given the fallout from the current US election cycle (to take a recent example, although much the same could be said of the UK’s Brexit referendum), reading and listening critically should be a matter of civic, if not intellectual, duty, and is a skill that is in woefully short supply. There’s a slight irony to Dr. Zimdars’ cautionary news site blacklist being disseminated on the very medium those same news sites use to disseminate the garbage most people swallow up with alacrity, but given the apparent struggles of parents, schools and colleges to instil in our young the basics of critical reasoning, and the central role played by social media in sharing and shaping the ideas of so many, all in all, I consider this a Good Thing.