Swallowed whole: satire and the media

Last week, the German public broadcasting company ZDF released a press statement clarifying that its comedy programmes contained comedy and not news, while the German public debate on Greece’s financial situation took an absurd turn and centred around the question: Did Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis show Germany the middle finger in a two-year-old video clip or not?

What had happened? In an interview for a German talk show hosted by Günter Jauch, Varoufakis was confronted with a video clip, in which he demands that Greece should announce its default and “show Germany the finger”, accompanied by a rude gesture towards the camera. Following the incident, Varoufakis claimed the video was “doctored”, while German tabloid newspapers were plastered in anti-Greek headlines.

Comedian Jan Böhmermann took the chance to mock obsessive and disproportionate German reactions to “fingergate”. In a video clip he released following the interview with Varoufakis, Böhmermann seemingly claims to have actually doctored the clip, adding: “We have devastated Europe twice in a century, but when somebody shows us the finger we go nuts!” and demanding that Günter Jauch and his TV show should immediately leave the Eurozone.

The next day, The Guardian and The Telegraph reported that a “German TV host” had “admitted” to faking the clip. On Twitter, journalists seriously debated whether Böhmermann had digitally inserted the middle finger into the clip, neither questioning that the “TV host” was in fact a comedian nor that he had little to do with the talk show that published the clip.

It is not the first time satire has been taken a bit too seriously by newspapers. Comedians offer the more spectacular stories and good satire hits a nerve that makes it hard to distinguish it from the truth. Poe’s law, named after author Nathan Poe, states that it is impossible to create a parody of extremism. Somebody will always take it seriously.

This is especially true for emotional issues. There was an outcry across the internet when the horrid fate of bonsai kittens became public. In a world where animals suffered, it seemed plausible that somebody would stuff a kitten into a bottle so it grew into the bottle’s shape, just like a bonsai tree. Websites and petitions were launched, media reported on this terrible case of animal abuse, but bonsai kittens were merely the product of satirical bloggers.

Journalists seem to be ready to believe certain stories and satirists have used these mechanisms to fool the media deliberately. In 1951, Austrian journalists eagerly awaited the arrival of the famous Inuit writer Kobuk from the Arctic, famous for works such as “Burning Artic” and “Of Ice and Men”. Kobuk did arrive that day – in the shape of satirist, actor and writer Helmut Qualtinger in a fur coat, who had issued the press release on Kobuk’s visit to prove that journalists would fall for it, and the Austrian media promptly proved his point. Similarly, writer Mark Twain deliberately wrote fake news articles. As a result he had to face duel challenges and threats by police officials, because his satire was believed to be true.

Good satire often tells some kind of truth. In the case of Varoufakis’, nobody at the talk show had of course digitally inserted a hand with an erect middle finger into the original clip. What they had done, however, was take a few seconds from an originally 40 minute-long speech that happened in 2013 and presented it as Greece’s current official position. This actual distortion made the satire plausible. Böhmermann’s joke had only been an exaggeration of already existing anti-Greek sentiment and a hysterical debate about Greece in Germany. Ultimately, after it had become clear that the story was a hoax, the satire triggered the more important questions whether it was right to show the clip in the first place and how willing journalists are to believe a story if it is just spectacular enough.

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