What Are You Reading…On Satire

A couple days ago I was shown an amicus brief filed by the ACLU in support of John Oliver’s defense against coal executive Bob Murray following Oliver’s satirical attack on Murray during his show, Last Week Tonight. For anyone who hasn’t seen the clip I link to in the last sentence, I’d encourage you to watch it, but the short version is that Oliver criticizes Murray for numerous things, such as hypocritically supporting Trump’s statements that coal jobs will come back even though Murray knows they won’t, and cutting worker benefits while his company makes enormous profits. Most commentators I’ve read say Oliver is on safe ground, especially given Murray’s tendency to sue any media outlets who run negative stories about him. However, the ACLU’s brief makes this point especially clear, with numerous silly yet obvious headers like “Anyone Can Legally Say ‘Eat Shit, Bob!’” and “You Can’t Sue People for Being Mean to You, Bob.” My favorite line is “It is apt that one of Plaintiffs’ objections to the show is about a human-sized squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter, because this case is nuts. Which also begs the question: is Mr. Nutterbutter one of the 50 Doe Defendants included in this action?”

The whole case raises the issue of satire’s role. While Oliver may be on safe ground legally, what is the difference between legitimate satire and unjustified attacks? How much can satire exaggerate the truth before it becomes a lie, and what is the proper response if satirical attacks are based on falsehoods? Additionally, if, as several studies have pointed out, more and more people are getting news from satirical sources, what effect will that have on society? While the following papers won’t fully answer these questions, they raise some interesting ideas.

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