Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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Members of the head table applaud as comedian Hasan Minhaj finishes his performance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, US, on April 29, 2017 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

‘Emotional truth’ is not a cover for fabricating stories

Comedians who engage with the news should not be free to ignore the rules of ethical journalism


In an interview published by the New Yorker on September 15 this year, the popular comedian Hasan Minhaj who is known for his political satire show "Patriot Act", admitted he had lied about an anthrax scare involving his own daughter. Earlier still, it turns out, Minhaj fabricated a story about his mosque being infiltrated by an FBI informant as a teenager, during which he claimed to have been subjected to assault by law enforcement. In the interview with the New Yorker, Minhaj defends himself, suggesting these stories were grounded in “emotional truth” and insists that “the punchline is worth the fictionalised premise".

Except it’s not. Not just because there are some things one just doesn’t lie about, but, as the article points out: "Minhaj's projects blur the lines between entertainment and opinion journalism." Distancing themselves from the “journalist” label, comedians like Minhaj, who proactively engage with the news for a living, evade any and all accountability.

In other words: there are baseline levels of truth and journalistic standards we need to expect from comedians who build their brands commenting on current affairs in the manner opinion journalists do. Like it or not, these comedic journalists owe their viewers factual truths over “emotional” ones.

Like Minhaj, comedians such as Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee, have all engaged in this form of journalism. Whether you call what they do “infotainment”, “satirical news anchoring”, or “humour journalism”, these people have all brought their audiences news after collecting it and processing it (with the aid of teams) in an exceptionally engaging form. People want to watch this mix of politically liberal commentary and comedy – “laughtivism” as it’s been called – it’s good for ratings.

As a journalist, I’m a proponent of the political commentary and public discussion this ambiguous comedy-meets-news space encourages. It widens the potential for news literacy amongst all age groups, but especially the 91 per cent of young people who get their news via social media. News satire, especially, expects intelligence from its informed audience.

What’s more, millennials in particular enjoy this brand of comedic “citizen journalism”, suggest the authors of Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Sophia A. McLennen and Remy M. Maisel. McLennen and Maisel also note satirical journalism enhances democratic culture. It’s really no small feat that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver showcases otherwise sidelined news stories in a manner some academics have called “a form of investigative reporting.”

But in an age of rampant misinformation and disinformation, we simply can’t afford for the people who deliver our news - with or without comedic stylings - to go unchecked because they choose to shun the “journalist” label. For journalists, unethical practices have real world consequences. After news broke that CNN anchor Chris Cuomo had violated the network’s journalistic standards by helping his brother, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, his firing was no surprise.

In Minhaj’s case, he did a sit down tele-interview with Amanpour and Company’s Hari Sreenivasan where he referenced the anthrax incident as a “factual truth”. The unfortunate truth is that we live in a world where no one needs to manufacture stories that portray hate crimes. 

To be clear, I’m not asking the everyday comic, mic in hand, political hot-takes at the ready, to tell the truth (even if there are some lines one doesn’t cross). I’m speaking solely of people whose comedic stylings sit at the intersection of entertainment, profit and news and journalism. Knowing that this genre of comedy has real-world implications - the potential to raise awareness and change politically-rigid beliefs - those who partake in it need to be subject to standards we wouldn’t apply to everyday comedians.

A lot of these comedian-anchor-commentators do have journalistic power. They hold political figures to account in a manner everyday journalists and news anchors don’t (or sometimes can’t). The headlines can be glorious: Trevor Noah “grilled” Chris Christie and Tomi Lahren, Hasan Minhaj “grilled” Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Jon Stewart “grilled” Judith Miller. But who holds them to account, beyond a few angry voices on the internet?

Moreover, is Minhaj qualified to hold anyone in power to account after this? Reportedly, Minhaj’s “emotional truths” débacle disqualifies him from hosting the much-coveted Daily Show, which is still in need of an anchor following Trevor Noah’s departure last year. This is certainly a step toward accountability, but is it enough? 

As one would expect, these shows hire newsgathering and fact-checking teams. Why, then, don’t they have any sort of concrete regulated journalistic standards? Perhaps, as this comedy-meets-political commentary genre evolves further, it’s something the journalism community can consider. We know Minhaj went too far, but where, exactly, is the compromise between journalism and comedic entertainment here? 

Akanksha Singh is an independent journalist based between Mumbai, India and Lisbon, Portugal


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance


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