The MRC's Double Standard On Satire
The Media Research Center will fact-check jokes -- but it also lashes out at fact-checkers who are forced to monitor right-wing satire site the Babylon Bee because so many conservatives mistake its satire for reality.
By Terry Krepel
The Media Research Center has a lot of double standards, but one of its biggest involves targets of fact-checking, and executive Tim Graham helpfully illustrates this. He ranted in full condescension mode during a March 2018 post:
When you proclaim yourself a fact-checking website, dedicated to helping people you believe are easily hornswoggled, that poor opinion of the audience can cause problems. Take satirical web sites. Do most readers understand the difference between jokey fake-news and real news?
The double standard here is that two weeks earlier, Graham was very humor-deprived in fact-checking a comedy game show:
Everyone knows when the liberal comedians are joking, they're just making up Fake News, right? Or does the audience suspect there's a lot of truth behind the humor? Fans of the weekend NPR news quiz Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me! heard the notion that President Trump's new budget "slashed" spending on everything, including Medicare and Medicaid.
But then, Graham is nothing if not humor-deprived, as painfully illustrated in tirade two weeks later against the Comedy Central "The Opposition" for mocking, yes, conservative humor for being humorless. Which seems to prove "The Opposition's" skit correct.
Graham won't tell you, however, there's a legitimate reason for the Babylon Bee getting fact-checked -- too many people treat the Bee's satire as legitimate news. Snopes itself has explained that it does so because "satire often isn’t recognizable as such in social media posts" and that right-wing fake-news sites repost Babylon Bee articles without identifying them as satire.
Nevertheless, this narrative -- and its double standard -- was something Graham and the MRC has decided is a legitimate narrative to push. Indeed, Graham sneeringly interpreted Snopes' explanation as declaring that "Snopes complained people are NOT bright."
But if humor isn't supposed to be fact-checked, why did the MRC's NewsBusters -- of which Graham is the executive editor -- fact-check a joke? Eight days before Graham's sneering dismissal of Snopes, Christian Toto -- a movie reviewer moonlighting as a right-wing pundit -- did exactly that in a lengthy post:
Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist.
Toto included a screenshot of a tweet from "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams purporting to make the case that Trump's "full comments" showed he did not praise white supremacists when he said there were "very fine people on both sides" because that comment was adjacent to a reference to people protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. But as the Washington Post's Aaron Blake pointed out, the statue-removal protest "was partly organized by a well-known white nationalist, Richard Spencer, and included both neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups" and, thus, "was clearly not one for your average supporter of Confederate monuments." Blake added:
For the Trump defense to make any sense, there would have had to be some other group of people who didn’t subscribe to these awful ideals but for some reason decided to march in common cause with neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists. It’s theoretically possible there might have been some such people there, but you would think they’d quickly become pretty uncomfortable marching next to people chanting “Jews will not replace us” and people who appeared prepared for violence, even donning helmets.
But never mind actual facts -- Toto went on to spout the accepted right-wing narrative on the Mueller report:
The grand daddy of all Fake News stories remains the Russia Collusion hoax. Late night hosts spent two years telling us Trump colluded with Russia, sometimes in rather disturbing ways. Colbert famously used a homophobic slur to attack Trump regarding the allegations.
Toto concluded by effectively making the same argument that Graham mocked when it came from Snopes:
Late night hosts crack wise with impunity. They serve up biased or downright fake news and never pay a single consequence. What’s to stop them from doing it all the way through the 2020 presidential campaign?
Of course, Graham will keep on mocking Snopes for fact-checking satire -- and forget he let a writer fact-check a joke.
Defending the Babylon Bee
Graham unironically complained in a July 2019 post about the "astringently humorless 'fact check' squad at Snopes.com" because it once again pointed out (which Graham called an "attack") that a Babylon Bee was not true and defended doing so because people believe it's real.
This was followed a few weeks later by a post from Toto -- again, a guy who fact-checked a joke -- under the headline "Here’s Why the Liberal Media Fear the Babylon Bee." Toto forwarded a conspiracy that Snopes is fact-checking the Babylon Bee in a deliberate attempt to cut off its revenue because it "fears the power of their very funny viral jokes aimed at the Left."
However, the MRC undermined this point with a July 11 column by Graham and Brent Bozell in which they, yes, fact-check a cartoon -- specifically, the Colbert-created "Our Cartoon President." The two even admit that the cartoon never claims to be actually true, but because it claims to be "truish" and because it mocks President Trump, they must forget about all that Snopes-mocking they've been doing and go on the attack:
Showtime thinks it's funny to claim that conservatives say they are "oppressed" and need a "safe space." The network says its "cutting-edge comedy presents the truish adventures of Trump ... and his family."
"Our Cartoon President" is satire just the same as the Babylon Bee -- should the word "truish" have been a clue? -- but because Graham and Bozell don't like the target, it must be "fact-checked" and denounced.
Talk about humorless.
Nevertheless, the war on Snopes continued. Alexander Hall noted in an August 2019 post that a Snopes-promoted study found that the Babylon Bee was "among the most shared factually inaccurate content," leading Hall to complain that Snopes has "switched tactics to instead claim satirical news can be dangerous," and to rush to the Babylon Bee's defense: "With the increasing popularity of the Babylon Bee, particularly with younger generations who love satirical humor, it appears the liberal media establishment is on full alert. After years of poking fun at easy targets, the liberal establishment may be lashing out at conservatives who know how to banter right back. "
Yet the MRC won't give satire that targets Trump the same pass.
Waging "war" on satire
In a February 2020 post, Graham groused, "It's fascinating that Snopes would wage war on the Babylon Bee and other satirical sites for slanting the truth." And what was Graham doing a month later? Waging war on satire.
The following month, Graham took offense to the fake "Daily Show" trailer called "Pandumbic," which featured Trump's heavy downplaying. Graham went on a word-parsing tirade to shield his favorite president from blame, led by his lame insistence that Trump's likening of coronavirus to the flu is "not ridiculous, technically":
1. Trump is shown saying "This is a flu. This is like a flu." This is not ridiculous, technically: "COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious viruses that cause respiratory illness." They left off the rest of his sentence: "And this is a much different situation than Ebola." This footage is from a February 26 press conference, when CNN reported the number of confirmed cases in the USA was 60.
A few weeks later, when "The Daily Show" issued "Heroes of the Pandumbic," featuring further downplaying from Trump and Fox News, the MRC called in the big gun ... uh, Sharyl Attkisson. Graham touted how "Attkisson smelled a rat" and claimed that "liberal sources and public health officials have said the very same things without being criticized." But Graham won't tell you that Attkisson played fast and loose with context in her rebuttal. As an actual news organization reported:
Journalist Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News reporter and frequent critic of the mainstream media, published a lengthy piece Sunday responding to a viral video from the “Daily Show,” which highlighted some of these wayward pronouncements by Fox, Trump and Trump allies. Attkisson offers each of the quotes from the video and then, under each one, lists a bunch of quotes from other sources that she argues are similar.
Instead, Graham's goal is to give his friends at Fox News a pass: "It's not hard to apply the old metaphor that hindsight is 20/20 and Fox News stars for saying coronavirus is just like the flu. Attkisson lays out how many people said that. But the Hindsight Machine of the late-night comedians is tilted, as always.
Attkisson is tilted as well -- but Graham won't tell you that.
Babylon Bee as "victim"
Because maintaining the narrative is more important to the MRC than looking like hypocritical fools, this pattern continues. Feb. 18 post by Corinne Weaver complained:
Satire is not meant to be taken seriously. Yet Big Tech and its tools find a way to label any humor coming from the right as disinformation or fake news.
This was followed on March 21 with Clay Waters whining that the New York Times was looking into the Bee:
The headline at the New York Times, was promising: “For Political Cartoonists, the Irony Was That Facebook Didn’t Recognize Irony -- As Facebook has become more active at moderating political speech, it has had trouble dealing with satire.” It appeared on the front of Saturday’s Business Day section as “Facebook Just Does Not Get Satire.”
What the MRC doesn't want to tell you is that right-wingers -- even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz -- tweet the alleged satire at the Babylon Bee as real news, much more than liberals are prone to treating anything from the Onion as real. And that's why it gets fact-checked as "news."
Of course, the MRC's complaining wouldn't matter if it didn't do what it attacked others for doing. But it does, which is why we have a March 11 post by P.J. Gladnick complaining about an obviously hyperbolic headline in Vanity Fair:
Sorry, Vanity Fair. We know you want to get eyeballs on your site but publishing a completely fake news headline is not the way to go.
Satire may be in the eye of the beholder, but it appears lack of humor about satire is as well.
The Bee's PR division
Meanwhile, the MRC also serving as the Bee's PR arm. In an April 24 post, Autumn Johnson parroted the Bee's criticism of Facebook for having "penalized" a post "making fun of leftist rioters and looters," ominously adding, "This is not the first time that Facebook has targeted The Babylon Bee." Gabriela Pariseau, meanwhile, wrote in an April 27 post:
The Babylon Bee CEO Seth Dillon told Fox News he was considering taking legal action against The New York Times after it labeled the satirical news site “misinformation.”
This is in regard to a Times article that the MRC's Clay Waters lashed out against in March. Both Pariseau and Dillon failed to mention the main issue: that right-wingers tweet the alleged satire at the Babylon Bee as real news.
The same day, Heather Moon attacked a study of who shares fake political news (turns out Republicans do, a lot), complaining that it listed the Bee as fake news: "Listing satire and comedy as 'fake news' is ludicrous." But if those Republicans are sharing Bee articles as news, does that not make it fake news?
On April 29, the MRC posted an "explainer video" purporting to blame social media operations for the fact that the Bee's readership has trouble telling news and satire apart, and it includes a whopper fairly early: "The Bee's comedy is clear to literally everyone, except the censorship bigots who work for social media companies." As proven above, that is literally a lie. The rest of the video is just rehashes of the MRC's previous pro-Bee defense work. In short, it didn't explain much, since it completely censored the main point of contention.
A June 14 article by Nicholas Fondacaro cheered that the Bee successfully nagged the New York Times into changing an article that referred to the Bee as "misinformation" -- then hyped CEO Seth Dillon complaining that it doing so the Times pointed out that fact-checking sites had identified the Bee as misinformation (presumably because some had presented Bee articles as fact).
The next day, Heather Moon tried to discredit an academic study that claimed "conservatives couldn’t tell the difference between factual and misleading news as well as liberals," in part because "Many of the so-called “false” headlines were stories from political satire sites like the Babylon Bee," adding, "The Science Advances study’s use of satirical headlines as examples of 'false' news is misleading." Actually, it shows that the Babylon Bee's alleged really is indistinguishable from fact for a significant portion of its target audience.
In a June 18 post, Kayla Sargent cheered that Facebook would cease being as tough on outlets claiming to be satire:
Facebook appears to have finally developed a sense of humor after its history of fact-checking and targeting satire sites like The Babylon Bee.
As usual, Sargent's definition of "censored" is laughably overbroad. Regarding the duck/witch article, One of the examples on the MRC's Free Speech America portrays a pop-up box on Facebook asking if a person really wants to share a post as "soft censor[ship]." Pop-up boxes are not censorship, no matter how hard the MRC insists otherwise.
On June 25, Alexander Hall got mad when it was pointed out that the Bee's alleged satire is mean-spirited and tends to punch down, and that Facebook might not like that:
Facebook made it loud and clear that satire may be OK on the platform, but only on the condition it doesn’t target people or things that it favors. Leftist, progressive outlet Slate responded by claiming The Babylon Bee is the perfect target for punishment.
Um, doesn't the fact that the Bee is "garnering more interactions on Facebook than the Onion" pretty much blow up the MRC's narrative that conservatives are being silenced?
Hall gave Dillon -- or more accurately, as even Hall surprisingly admits, "the unverified account purporting to represent The Babylon Bee CEO Seth Dillon" -- a chance to respond, insisting that they're not punching down, they just hate liberals:
The Dillon account rejected the premise that The Bee, a rare example of conservative entertainment, is punching down when it pokes fun at the left’s ideology: “They say we antagonize the trans community (punching down). Utter nonsense. We're attacking the top-down tyranny of the left's progressive agenda and the destruction it's wreaking throughout society, enabled and fueled by all the most powerful people and institutions.” In a following tweet, he quipped “If that's not punching up, I don't know what is. But more importantly, the left's prohibition of ‘punching down’ is speech suppression in disguise. It's people in positions of power protecting their interests by telling you what you can and cannot joke about.”
Of course, the Bee's "attacking the top-down tyranny of the left's progressive agenda" is indistinguishable from attacking the trans community because no distinction is made between the two. It comes down to the Bee being opposed to LGBTQ people having the same rights as everyone else.
Sargent did disclose that "The Babylon Bee is a member of the Free Speech Alliance" -- the conglomeration of right-wing groups the MRC assembled to fight "censorship" of conservatives (which really isn't happening).The fact that the Babylon Bee is part of such a partisan group betrays its partisan nature -- and belies any attempt by the MRC and the Bee to frame what it does as benign satire.
Autumn Johnson ignored the context of fact-checks once more in an Aug, 18 post:
Lead Stories, a liberal fact-checker site, labeled a satire article from The Babylon Bee as “false.”
But that's not what happened here. The Babylon Bee article was promoted in a Facebook post that literally states, "This is no joke." In other words, Johnson is lying to her readers by omitting the context in which the "fact-check" was made.
Johnson also rehashed the MRC's old attacks on Lead Stories, declaring that "Notably, Lead Stories is no stranger to left-wing bias." But it's not "left-wing bias" to point out that a story that someone presented as "no joke"is, in fact, a joke.
This was followed by an Aug. 24 post by Johnson in which she let the Babylon Bee play victim yet again:
Facebook is doubling down on its efforts to suppress conservative satire, according to Seth Dillion, CEO of The Babylon Bee.
But neither Dillon nor the Fox News article from which Johnson pulls her post don't address the issue of people presenting Babylon Bee satire as fact, which is what prompts the fact-checks. Indeed, Fox News was determined to help push the false narrative, complaining that "In 2018, Snopes fact-checked a Babylon Bee satire article claiming that CNN had bought a washing machine to 'spin the news.'" In fact, the Snopes article specifically states: "Although it should have been obvious that the Babylon Bee piece was just a spoof of the ongoing political brouhaha over alleged news media 'bias' and 'fake news,' some readers missed that aspect of the article and interpreted it literally." Again, a "satire" article was fact-checked because people presented it as fact.
Johnson went on to reference her earlier post, repeating her false statement that "Lead Stories, a liberal fact-checker site, recently labeled a satire article from The Babylon Bee as 'false'" -- again omitting the fact that it had been posted on Facebook by someone asserting it was "no joke."
This is "media research" at its shoddiest.