Media Comment: When satire is bullying

The post-Charlie Hebdo era has created a new difficulty in discussing satire.

People queue for the new issue of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo at a kiosk in Nice. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People queue for the new issue of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo at a kiosk in Nice.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Robert F. Darden, an associate professor of journalism and new media at Baylor University, is also a satirist who edited the now-defunct religious humor magazine The Wittenburg Door. He penned an op-ed titled “Why Satire Matters” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He noted that religious or political satire magazines have a unique business model in that success is evaluated by the number of subscriptions canceled with each issue, accompanied by the phrase “you have gone too far.”
His periodical’s motto was: “To use humor and satire to hold a mirror before the evangelical church.”
The post-Charlie Hebdo era has created a new difficulty in discussing satire. It has had a chilling affect, now being applied to any media criticism. The call raised is that all should be forcefully condemning the murderous attack as “an assault on the freedom of speech and the core tenets of democracy.”
Here in Israel, satire, especially that which was electronically broadcast, has a long and irreverent history. Motti Kirschenbaum was awarded an Israel Prize in the “art of radio, television and cinema” for his leadership of the television satire program Nikui Rosh (Head Flushing) in 1976. Over the years all three Israeli TV channels have provided a platform for many satirical programs. Some of the most outstanding, or more precisely outrageous ones include Chartzufim, Matzav HaUmmah, Eretz Nehederet and the current HaYehudim Ba’im (The Jews Are Coming) as well as the infamous Shai v’Dror radio show. All were heavily slanted to the Left, both in the political sense as well as their general cultural/artistic and religious content. The sole voice of Zionist-leaning satire, Latma, is supposed to go on air on TV Channel 1, but only after four years of stonewalling and managers taking all possible steps to prevent it from happening.
One might justify the bias by noting that historically, satire comes more naturally to the Left.
Its political philosophy and outlook on institutions of power are more confrontational as well as irreverent. The Left is most often outside of the power structure and denied access to it since the majority rejects its approach to social, economic and security issues.
Darden explains that “satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.” But from the perspective of a critical Israeli media consumer, here’s the rub: what if satire is used undemocratically to prop up certain elites, supressing the more genuine voices in a society? Satirist Efraim Sidon was quoted in The New York Times on November 8, 1996 saying, “We are the revenge of the silent majority.”
That attitude should be considered as a fulfillment of the academic analysis in Derek Penslar’s 1970 book Israel in History, in which he wrote, “Satirical literature attempts to subvert a cultural system through the manipulation of its foundational symbols.”
The question an Israeli media consumer need ask, especially when the programming is publicly funded or supervised by Knesset legislation, is what if those who use humor as a weapon when provided free airtime (and earn a living from it) are taking advantage of that airtime to present biased and largely one-dimensional material? True, satire’s blistering essence is mockery. It is and should be abrasive, annoying and acerbic.
But often, the reality, to quote Darden, is that if satire is making “fun of people less fortunate than you, even if it is for legitimate satiric effect, then it is not satire. It is bullying. Being a bully is never funny.”
An egregious example cheapshot propaganda posing as satire was one of the caricatures Haaretz included in its “salute” to the memory of the journalists and cartoonists slaughtered by two Islamist brothers last week in Paris.
Noa Olchovsky, one of several people invited to contribute their illustrations in Amos Schocken’s newspaper to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo dead, drew a black box and in its upper portion noted 10 crossed-out markings. In its lower portion she added marks for journalists who had been killed by Israeli fire during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge campaign against Hamas aggression.
In the middle she added not only “#JeSuisCharlie” but also ”#JeSuisGaza.”
In just a few pen strokes, Olchovsky maligned Israel. This wasn’t an exaggeration but a blatant lie.
She falsely and consciously accused Israel of carrying out a massacre.
On the one hand, two fanatics deliberately murdered a dozen people on the background of what they considered a blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. On the other hand, Israel, with civilian targets being shelled and subjected to rocket-fire and attack after three teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, was responding to terrorism in self-defense, after having completely evacuated the territory of Gaza. Journalists were unintentionally killed, an event which occurs, regrettably, in many other conflicts around the world. But Olchovsky and Haaretz considered them to be equivalently outrageous acts.
In response, this past Sunday liberal left-wing Galatz anchor Razi Barkai brought the publisher of Haaretz Amos Schocken to task for this outrageous comparison.
Schocken’s response was tiresome, hiding behind freedom of speech.
Jewish humor is renowned, its satire a staple going back centuries.
The Maskilim famously employed it against the Hassidim. In this case, Haaretz’s satire was not intended to improve Israeli society and its politics but to undermine them. That is not at all funny.
The writers are, respectively, the vice-chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch,