Politics & Policy

Attacks on the Babylon Bee Are Attacks on Free Expression

The CNN Headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., October 29, 2018 (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)
The satirical website is being charged with “disinformation” for attacking all the wrong people.

Did you know that CNN has a reporter on the “disinformation” beat?

I’ll skip the cheap joke about his never having to leave the office, and note that the network is now grousing about the Christian conservative satire site the Babylon Bee, which has earned the ire of a number of liberals for making jokes at their expense.

The story drawing CNN’s outrage — “Democrats Call For Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast To Grieve Death Of Soleimani” — is good satire. It slightly exaggerates the reaction many on the left have had to the killing of the Iranian mass murderer. Anyone who read the Washington Post’s headline calling Soleimani a “most revered military leader,” watched ABC’s Martha Raddatz offering adulatory treatment of the terrorist from Iran, or listened to Elizabeth Warren struggle to call him a murderer after her initial statement is in on the joke.

That some people believe the Babylon Bee piece is also a sign that it is good satire. How many Americans, after all, still believe that Sarah Palin, rather than Tina Fey, said, “I can see Russia from my house?” Satire relies on a level of plausibility. If the only brand of political humor permitted is vapid enough for even the dumbest or most humorless person to comprehend, we’re going to end up in a world with a lot more Andy Borowitzes.

CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan offers only three examples of gullible conservatives buying the satire — the Babylon Bee piece has over 500,000 shares on Facebook — but he’s alarmed that too many Americans have been hoodwinked. “To put this in perspective,” he writes, “this is the same number of engagements the top NY Times and CNN stories on Facebook had over the past week. A lot of people sharing this ‘satirical’ story on Facebook don’t know it is satire.”

There will always be chumps who fall for bogus news stories — in particular, bogus news stories that comport with their preconceived notions about the world. Yet media coverage of “disinformation” is a highly specialized concern. In 2006, more than half of Democrats still thought it likely, or somewhat likely, that George W. Bush had had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. I don’t remember panicky reporters signing up for the disinformation beat back then. Last I looked, 67 percent of Democrats believed it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that the Russkies had altered votes to get Donald Trump elected. Why no concern over this dangerous falsehood? Perhaps because the call is coming from inside the house.

You might recall the decade-long love affair with The Daily Show. If not, a recent piece in the Washington Post — headlined “Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ changed how we consume news. His political influence still endures” — is here to remind you that the show

made Stewart a household name, trusted implicitly by the left and respected, if grudgingly, by many on the right. Twenty years after he began hosting the satirical show that changed how we consume news, Stewart remains a uniquely influential figure in politics. The comedian doesn’t just fight the system — he understands how it works.

Years ago, a producer from The Daily Show called me to discuss the possibility of being interviewed about a book I’d written. In this case, the producer claimed to be supportive of my positions. One thing was certain, though: If The Daily Show disagreed with you, it was going to edit the interview to make you look like a simpering idiot. Why? Because Stewart’s satirical show, often funny, featured jokes almost exclusively mocking conservatives. The widely celebrated Colbert Report’s satirical conceit was to paint conservatives as cartoonishly irrational buffoons. Stewart was the most trusted source of political news for Millennials. How many young liberals  had their worldview formed by these “selectively edited” segments?

The Babylon Bee’s real crime, of course, is that it mocks all the wrong people. Many of the people it mocks, incidentally, are now part of a concerted effort to inhibit political speech — or to shame tech companies into inhibiting political speech. As always, a lot of this effort is nothing but cynical partisanship. But some of it taps into a longstanding anxiety about conservative susceptibility to deception. I mean, how else could these people possibly believe the dumb things they do — right?

“Having a disclaimer buried somewhere on your site that says it’s ‘satire’ seems like a good way to get around a lot of the changes Facebook has made to reduce the spread of clickbait and misinformation,” O’Sullivan notes. I’m certain there was a good reason that Juvenal didn’t slap a “THIS IS SATIRE” warning on his poems. Notifying people of impending satire is the most effective way to kill the mood.

The gravest contention O’Sullivan makes — and he’s not the only one — is that the Babylon Bee isn’t merely in the business of being a funny conservative site, but that it also exists to spread misinformation about Democrats. Where is his evidence? Did the Babylon Bee once put “satire” on all its headlines, and change that policy to circumvent Facebook’s ridiculous policing of speech?

What’s most annoying about all this situational and insincere freakout about the veracity of social-media news feeds is that the people who claim to be most concerned about it have done far more damage to the public’s trust than has any satirical site — not only by spreading half-truths and stoking political hysteria, but by undermining their reputation and leaving millions of Americans without any reliable mainstream news organizations to count on.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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