Friday, May 06, 2005

When Is Political Humor Not Funny? When It's (Wrongly) Taken Seriously

Political humor is essentially criticism with entertainment. But when humorous lines are presented in a serious context, something's wrong.

Yet on two occasions this year, members of the conservative "media" have done just that -- taken what was originally a joke or putdown, and used it in a serious context. Perhaps these "media" types -- radio host Janet Parshall and the infamous J.D. Guckert (aka Jeff Gannon) -- didn't check the context of the original statements, or perhaps they were so desperate for damning material that they didn't care. Neither has apparently apologized, although some conservative blogs who made similar mistakes have offered corrections.


Parshall, on the May 2 edition of Janet Parshall's America, falsely accused Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) of promoting herself as an evangelical Christian. But as first reported by, the source of Parshall's accusation was a humorous column by Rob Long on National Review Online, in which Long "quoted" a fake bulletin from a fictitious church.

PARSHALL: "Hillary's already calling herself an evangelistic -- evangelical Christian. And last time around, she was Jewish. So before it's all said and done, she will be an evangelical Jewish Muslim. Trust me."

What Long's Nov. 16, 2004 column: "As you know, I consider myself an evangelical Christian, really a Christian conservative, if you want to know the truth, so it's nice to be 'home' again in the South, which I really consider my quote-unquote home even though I live in New York most of the time. Well, Washington, D.C., most of the time, actually, but if I'm not there I'm in New York, of course, but always thinking about being here, in the South, my spiritual home, where I shared so many wonderful evangelical ... moments and ... events. Can you read that back to me?"

After Long's piece appeared, several conservative blogs posted the fake Clinton quotes as real. Some, like Blogs for Bush, issued corrections.

But Parshall, who claims to reach 3.5 million listeners each week, has yet to correct her misuse of humorous material.


Gannon, the discredited fake "journalist" who turned out to be a paid operative of the Texas GOP, brought widespread attention to himself in January when he framed a question to President Bush using an "irreverant" putdown from radio host Rush Limbaugh.

At a Jan. 26 press conference, Gannon asked: "Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy: Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and [Senator] Hillary Clinton [D-NY] was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there's no crisis there. You've said you're going to reach out to these people. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

Reid, of course, never made a reference to soup lines. As Limbaugh said that day, "Uh, Harry Reid never said 'soup lines.' ... (H)is question ... is a repeat, a rehash, of a precise point I made on this program yesterday."

The sad thing is that, although Guckert was roundly criticized for this -- the question led many media critics to look into Guckert and his employer, Talon News -- Limbaugh was flattered my Guckert's mistake, because it meant he was listening to his show.

"I'm not upset by this, folks. I'm honored. I'm thrilled," said Limbaugh.


Then there's Ann Coulter, who thinks people take her statements too seriously.

In Time magazine's flattering April 25 cover story on the conservative pundit, reporter John Cloud makes several similar points about Coulter:

-- "Coulter's speech was part right-wing stand-up routine."

-- Quoting her friend, Miguel Estrada, saying: "Most of the time, people miss her humor and satire and take her way too literally."

-- "[I]n person, Coulter is more likely to offer jokes than fury."

One of the reasons Cloud, and Time, were so heavily criticized is that it's easy to say something was meant to be funny after the fact. When former Bush Education Secretary Rod Paige called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" a year ago, people took him seriously. A day later, he told the Associated Press: "I was making what I now know was a bad joke; it was a poor choice of words." On his radio show, Michael Savage sounds serious enough when he calls Muslims "bomb-tossers," but in interviews after the fact suggests this is an example of his "wit."

When Cloud provides the excuse that Coulter should not be taken so seriously by liberals, it opens the door for questioning everything she says. Since she doesn't preface comments by announcing them as humorous, what can we make of her outragous statements.

For example, was Coulter being funny when, in her book Slander, she wrote: "After Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion contrary to the clearly expressed position of the New York Times editorial page, the Times responded with an editorial on Thomas titled 'The Youngest, Cruelest Justice.' That was actually the headline on a lead editorial in the Newspaper of Record. Thomas is not engaged on the substance of his judicial philosophy. He is called 'a colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests,' 'race traitor,' 'black snake,' 'chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom,' 'house Negro' and 'handkerchief head,' 'Benedict Arnold' and 'Judas Iscariot.'"

The paragraph makes it sound as though the New York Times was guilty of some horrible name-calling. But the Times never said any of those things. Was Coulter being funny? Or was she just being a bad "conservative journalist"?

As exhaustively researched by

Who actually called Thomas a “house Negro?” Royce Esters, little-known head of the Compton, California, NAACP, in 1991 (quoted in Emerge).

Who actually called Thomas “a colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests?” The Manchester Union-Leader attributed that insult to the (unnamed) head of the Maryland NAACP in early 1997. So did Perry Morgan, in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

Who actually called Thomas a "chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom," and a “handkerchief head?” Spike Lee, 1991, quoted in U.S. News & World Report. “I think Malcolm X, if he were alive today, would call Thomas a handkerchief head, a chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom."

Who actually called Thomas a “black snake?” The claim has often been attributed to Thurgood Marshall, derived from the 1991 press conference at which the aging Marshall announced his retirement. He doesn't mention Thomas by name, but the conventional wisdom was that he was referring to Thomas, who was expected to be nominated.

MARSHALL: I mean for picking the wrong Negro and saying, "I'm picking him because he is a Negro." I am opposed to that. My dad told me way back that you can't use race. For example, there's no difference between a white snake and black snake; they'll both bite.

Who actually called Thomas a “race traitor?” In 1998, Thomas was called a “race traitor” by James Albrook in the New Pittsburgh Courier.


Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, George Carlin ... you know what you are getting when you listen to these people.

But Janet Parshall and J.D. Guckert never recognized that they were quoting "humorous" statements out of context. And what are Coulter and Savage's listeners and readers to do? Should we take everything these conservative pundits say with a grain of salt? Assume every outrageous statement is meant as humorous?

With all these context questions, none of them are doing us any favors.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am confused ... Is Gannon/Guckert a journalist and a member of the media, or not? Or, does you definition depend on whether or not it will enable you to bash some conservative?

As far as the other member of the conservative media, since I have never heard of the individual, or the instance in question, I find it difficult to get worked up about it. I suppose some of the small market local liberal talking heads have said dumb things too, but one has to have a sense of perspective.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

Of course, you could reverse your statement -- you conservatives demand that he be considered a journalist, except when he's being criticized for something journalistic.

Clearly, David says that this question of President Bush was what triggered the liberal media critics to look into Guckert and Talon News. At the time, he was considered a journalist, albeit partisan. It wasn't until the days after the Reid question that people realized he was a paid Texas GOP operative.

As for Parshall, you may not have heard of her, but she's big on the Christian radio stations. And if she claims to have 3.5 million listeners, that would give her a similar audience to Michael Savage.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

She claims 3.5 million a week, Savage has about 3.5 million a day. Fairly substantial difference. Have you noticed how a little known Christian radio talk show host, and Michael Savage, has been made the standard bearers for the Republican party?

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't say Parshall is a standard-bearer for the Republican party.

It does say that she is a conservative, and she screwed up. Same for Gannon. And I think the point about Coulter is well-taken too.

I'm confused -- are you defending these people?

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not defending anybody. I am just pointing out that using two obscure irrelevant media/non-media types as the model for conservative actions is a joke.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

Parshall has listeners nationwide. Guckert, misquoting Rush Limbaugh, is anything but obscure.

And what about Coulter? She just got a cover story on Time, sells millions of books. Or doesn't that count?

I'm sorry. I think JABBS' point is pretty sound. The fact that you don't listen to Parshall doesn't discount that.

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guckert is "anything but obscure" because the liberal blogs went crazy that a homosexual escort dared to consider themselves to be a journalist, asked softball questions, and had the audacity to be conservative.

The Vanity Fair article does a good job of pointing out the witchhunt that he went through.

1:18 AM  
Anonymous joe said...

You keep bringing up Guckert's gay escort service, which still has absolutely nothing to do with why people were upset. The fact that he's conservative has nothing to do with why people are upset.

I know that you think you score points with this misinformation, but you don't.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

It's not that Guckert/Gannon dared to consider himself a journalist, Anonymous.

It's that the *White House* considered him a journalist.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Other examples, from blogger Jeff Jarvis:

"When a fake Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on Howard Stern's show and proposed blowing up the moon -- with the fringe benefit of ending women's PMS and bitchiness -- Joe Scarborough on MSNBC took it seriously and lectured Arnold about sexism. Now, the guy's a good Schwarzenegger impersonator but still, there were scores of clues in the bit that it was a bit.

"The Swift Report -- a good and often very funny satire site -- put out a press release from the Coalition for Traditional Values upset over Laura Bush's off-color jokes and TV-watching habits. Now, of course, what makes that so funny is that it's so close to the truth. But it was just a joke. Nonetheless, Rush Limbaugh, MSNBC, and Drudge fell for it."

4:55 PM  

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