A few more notes on Mouthpiece Theater

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

CJR's Megan Garber continues her excellent coverage of the "Mouthpiece Theater" debacle with an explanation of why the "it was just an experiment" defense falls flat. Garber:

Should Milbank and Cillizza-whose "experimental" journalism involved the duo dubbing themselves "two of the biggest maws in Washington" and treating politics as if it were alternately a sport/a game/a spectacle/an object of mockery-really be applauded for the reductive insult-to-all-involved that was "Mouthpiece Theater"? More to the point, was the series really embracing the kind of experimentation we want to see defining news's future?

No. And: no. Experimentation may well be what will guide us out of the desert journalism is currently wandering; still, Hey, we were just experimenting! cannot be a blanket defense for the blanket abandonment of journalistic ideals. Which, in the end, is what "Mouthpiece Theater" was. In journalism, as in everything else, there are principles that must transcend platform-messages, as it were, that must transcend medium. Among them are: intellectual honesty, a commitment to information, and a fundamental seriousness of purpose. And that's so even when it comes to satire.

There's much more; check it out.

As Garber notes, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, after criticizing the execution of Mouthpiece Theater, wrote "Milbank and Cillizza should be applauded for embracing the spirit of experimentation underlying [the series]."

Alexander was, at times, refreshingly blunt in his assessment of the videos. "Critics justly panned it as sophomoric," for example. And "There was so much wrong with 'Mouthpiece Theater' and the way The Post handled the controversy that it's hard to know where to begin."

But his assessment also left a lot to be desired. He continued the Post's description of the videos as satire that went too far. I don't buy it. What were Chris Cillizza and Dana Milbank "satirizing" when they called Hillary Clinton a bitch and described a wife suing for divorce from a cheating spouse as a "bitter woman from hell"?

Alexander -- like Milbank, Cillizza, and the Washington Post spokesperson who first commented on the controversy -- seems to think "satire" means simply "jokes." That isn't what "satire" means. This is:

1. the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.

So, again: What human folly or vice were Cillizza and Milbank holding up to scorn, derision or ridicule? None. They skipped the "human folly or vice" part and went straight to scorn, derision and ridicule.

What Milbank and Cillizza did wasn't satire that went too far. It was mean-spirited insults. There is a difference. Saying that they simply went too far in their satire lets them off the hook. It isn't a legitimate defense; it's spin.

Speaking of letting them off the hook: Alexander suggests Cillizza's only flaw in this debacle was hanging out with the wrong crowd:

The basic concept was flawed. Milbank might have pulled it off as a solo act. His Washington Sketch column can be biting and funny, and his occasional accompanying videos are creative and entertaining. It's his job to voice opinions. But Cillizza is different. He writes straight news on The Fix, his popular Post politics blog, and his stories appear on the news pages. Teaming with Milbank created a branding problem for him and The Post. It left readers confused about his true role -- reporter, commentator or comic? -- and about The Post's standards. Cillizza acknowledged this "somewhat discordant marriage" on The Fix after "Mouthpiece Theater" was killed.

Alexander did not mention that Cillizza, not Milbank, was the one who attacked Chip Pickering's wife as a "bitter woman from hell." In fact, Alexander didn't mention that comment at all. Alexander is not alone in that -- I don't believe either Cillizza or the Post has ever acknowledged it. All parties seem content to let people believe Milbank's "bitch" comment was the only misogyny contained in the video. That is, perhaps, understandable coming from Cillizza and the Post -- they are, after all, concerned about the damage done to the branding of "The Fix." But readers might have expected better from the Post's Ombudsman.

The Washington Post
Dana Milbank, Chris Cillizza, Megan Garber
Columbia Journalism Review
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