Death by Satire
By Annalee Newitz
IN HONOR OF George W. Bush's efforts to stop torture by setting up secret CIA prisons and to promote freedom by expanding government surveillance powers, I think we should spend a few days contemplating another great thing this administration has done for the world: It has reinvigorated political satire. What was The Daily Show before the USA-Patriot Act? And where would international pranksters the Yes Men be today without this administration's asshattish policies?
Thanks to the Internet, satire can be instant and lethal. Certainly, it's not always pretty, but it's more effective as social criticism than it was in an era before jesters could respond within hours to current events and broadcast their pranks globally.
I'm still a big fan of the widely condemned fake execution video made by three San Francisco multimedia geeks in 2004. Benjamin Vanderford, who plays experimental music in several bands, decided to make the video in response to the media hysteria around the Nick Berg execution video. He has said that the video wasn't a partisan protest of the war itself but instead a wake-up call to the media, which he criticized on his website (http://videohoax.ctyme.com) for doing "no fact-finding" and being so "centralized" that they will reprint anything from Reuters or Associated Press without verifying it.
With the help of Laurie Kirchner and Robert Martin, Vanderford filmed himself tied up in a dingy room as if he'd been kidnapped in Iraq. He stated his real name and address and urged the United States to get out of Iraq. Islamic chants played in the background, and every few seconds a picture of a grisly execution appeared. "We need to leave this country alone or all of us will die like this," Vanderford said, then cut to a grainy image of somebody sawing his head off with a butcher knife.
He and his buddies made the video available on their hard drives to anyone using the P2P networks Kazaa and Soulseek. Because the Berg execution video was all over the news, thousands of people were scouring P2P networks for anything with the word "execution" in the title. The video soon turned up on an Islamic website, which is how the U.S. media got wind of it. AP and several papers published stories about the video without ever bothering to look up Vanderford, verify his existence or check the address he used in the video (which was his real home address).
Sure, the message was ugly, and the video is actually quite disturbing to watch. But it was the very best kind of social satire—it proved Vanderford's point that the media were so eager to lap up any news that could feed terrorism frenzy that they weren't bothering to do even the most rudimentary fact-checking.
Of course, the news outlets whose shoddy practices had been unmasked by this prank were quick to condemn Vanderford and cover their asses. Fox ran a bogus segment featuring a "legal advisor" who said that Vanderford had broken the law (he hadn't), and AP deputy editor Tom Kent claimed that his organization did eventually check the veracity of the tape by "banging" on Vanderford's door at 4am and filming him in his underwear answering questions about the hoax (you can see clips of this seminaked interview online).
Possibly, the stupidest responses to the hoax came from people who claimed that it "hurt" people, and therefore Vanderford and pals should be punished. Stanford professor of communications Ted Glasser told the San Jose Mercury News that releasing the video was "like bombing a building to see if security measures are in place." Despite the patent foolishness of this comment, it reveals how strongly people are affected by well-aimed satire. Frankly, I'd rather watch a dozen fake execution videos if it would make the media more careful about buying into government and corporate propaganda. I live for the day when satire is like bombing a building because nobody actually bombs anyone anymore.
See, that's the beauty of satire—it hurts, but only in your conscience.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who can't wait to watch videos of the Yes Men masquerading as HUD officials in New Orleans.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.