Libel is defined as a type of defamation that is written and published. It is a false attack on a person’s character which damages a person’s reputation, and it is punishable by law. By this definition, The Onion, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and similar shows and publications should all have been buried in law suits long ago. So what exactly is going on here? Why haven’t these TV shows and publications been shut down by the cohorts of powerful people they regularly attack?
For the purpose of this blog post, I will discuss a delightfully clever Onion article published January 14, 2014 entitled “Boy, I’ve Really Put You In A Tough Spot, Haven’t I?”
A sharp-witted satire, this article examines the controversy around Woody Allen. At the beginning of this year, Allen was nominated for and won the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. When word of Allen’s nomination came out, his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, spoke out against him. Farrow brought up old accusations against Allen, saying he molested her when she was seven-years-old. While Allen has been legally cleared of all charges, Farrow insists that the abuse happened. Her statement, which was published in the New York Times, caused quite a stir and suddenly Americans had to make up their minds. Could our beloved Woody Allen have done such a thing? And if so, what bearing–if any–does it have on his work as an artist? Can we love the films of a child molester?
It is a delicate issue, one to approach with caution. News sources worked to report the story without assuming guilt; The Onion was under no such obligation. Similarly, other news sources dealt with sensitive ethical and philosophical issues about the value of an artistic work in relation to the artist’s personal life. The Onion did not. In short, The Onion does not operate under any sort of obligation to be politically correct.
While the rest of the world was treading lightly, The Onion published a satirical commentary in the voice of none other than Allen himself. The article addresses America’s struggle to reconcile these two conflicting Woody Allen personas: the Woody Allen who gave us Manhattan and the Woody Allen who (allegedly) molested a seven-year old. In one fell swoop, The Onion summarized the debate and tore it apart:
Oh, sure, you could try to defend me in an argument by saying, “Well, he was never convicted, and it’s possible that this little girl just made all that stuff up,” but, c’mon, anyone who says that is bound to sound like kind of an asshole, right? […] No, obviously you can’t do that. But then again, what are you going to do? Never watch Annie Hall again? […] You know you don’t want that.
We began by defining libel. This Onion article is certainly an example of written and published defamation of character. It is a very personal and very direct attack and there is no way to prove its validity. So, why isn’t Woody Allen suing? Because the article is satire, and there is not much anybody can do about anything said in the form of satire.
In 1988, the supreme court made a ruling in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell that essentially gave all satire a golden ticket. Basically, as long as it is clearly a satirical article, anything goes.
Satire has a long, rich history. For centuries, satire has been the security blanket of freethinkers everywhere. While there is certainly a time and a place for thorough, factual, and sensitive reporting, there is also a time for outrageous, offensive, and crude satire. In sixteenth century France, François Rabelais published harsh critiques of society and French government in the form of satire. His book, Pantagruel, which is crude and irreverent even by today’s standards, was banned shortly after its publication by the Sorbonne. Today, after more than 480 years, it is regarded as a literary work worthy of our consideration because of the unique insights it provides into the politics and religion of sixteenth century France.
There is something magical about satire. A portion of the official supreme court ruling for Hustler Magazine v. Falwell states, “Nothing is more thoroughly democratic than to have the high-and-mighty lampooned and spoofed.”
I could not agree more thoroughly. The right of satirists everywhere to deal irreverently with delicate issues is essential to greatness. It essential to freedom of thought, ideas, and expression. Tina Fey was born to impersonate Sarah Palin. Matt Stone and Trey Parker had every right to come out with The Book of Mormon musical. Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert are not low culture. Rabelais’s Pantagruel is worthy of being read in French literature classes the world over.
To take away the opportunity to be crude and irreverent is to lose ourselves walking on egg shells. Satire stomps forward and holds a mirror to society. It is almost never flattering, but it is almost always necessary.