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When Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story, journalism in this country took a turn. Tough, intrepid reporters were associated with a dogged quest for the truth. Yet, as Matt Bai explains it in the New York Times Magazine, it’s a mistake to think that the legacy of Watergate has actually been journalistic commitment to the truth. Instead, for him, Watergate led to an obsession with uncovering scandals, whether significant or not.
Today, journalists seek out scandals, often “exaggerating the importance of minor mistakes or improprieties” focusing more on attention-grabbing than offering nuance, complexity and a balanced truth. Scandal stories are designed to “elicit strong negative reactions (such as anger, shock, disgust, outrage) in the public.”
But what happens when reporters don’t just seek out scandals, they literally manufacture them? And what happens when, in response, the pundits and public pile on with their own manufactured outrage?
That impulse may explain Claire Malone’s “exposé” in the New Yorker about the so-called “fibs” comedian Hasan Minhaj told in his stand-up routines as well as the flurry of overblown reactions it caused. Minhaj was accused of not being fully accurate in three stand-up stories: being rejected for prom due to racism, FBI informants harassing Muslim communities after 9/11 and receiving a letter with white powder that threatened his family: stories which he has just proven were all true.
When I first encountered the New Yorker piece, I found it odd that a reporter with no experience writing about comedy and no history of fact-checking would decide to fact-check stand-up. But it turns out that was just the tip of how weird this story would get.
In response to the New Yorker piece and to the flurry of attacks it caused, Minhaj has released a video that details how he offered correcting information during his interview. The reporter ignored all of it, choosing instead to write a piece that, in Minhaj’s words, made him look like a “psycho.”
“The reason I feel horrible,” he explains, “is because I’m not a psycho. But this New Yorker article definitely made me look like one. It was so needlessly misleading.”
But even without the reams of evidence Minhaj offered in his video, the article deserved serious scrutiny. Why would a white reporter decide to fact-check a comedian's stories of racism and Islamophobia in the first place? Shouldn’t that bother us?
Rather than ask these questions, though, the overwhelming initial response to the New Yorker piece was to pile on. When Minhaj first released a statement reiterating the factual basis for his stories shortly after the New Yorker article came out, practically no one cared. Instead, almost every reaction piece (other than mine for Salon) skewered him for being either a fraud, a faker, or the Jussie Smollett of comedy.
Why weren’t more of the reactions expressing outrage at the article itself? And why did Minhaj have to release a follow-up video to his follow-up statement so that he could finally be heard? What exactly does it take for a comedian accused of faking facts to be taken seriously?
Correcting the record
The most scandalized feature of the “exposé” concerns Minhaj’s relationship to his high school crush, referred to onstage as “Bethany.” Minhaj admitted to the New Yorker that he embellished being rejected on “Bethany’s” doorstep the night of prom, even though it did happen a few days prior. But it isn’t really the timing of the rejection that created a stir; it was the story’s implication that Minhaj’s wasn’t rejected because of racism and that Minhaj’s fabricated story had hurt “Bethany.”
Minhaj, though, didn’t just have a different version of what happened; he also gave the New Yorker proof – texts, messages, and emails — corroborating his story. These included an email where “Bethany” tells Minhaj she is coming to see his show and that her friends had seen it and “loved it.” There is a record of friendly communication between them utterly different from the characterization offered by the New Yorker.
How could all of these facts be omitted? Even if one were skeptical about them, wouldn’t a fact-checking piece at least be expected to acknowledge their existence? We know that confirmation bias can affect reporting, but deliberately suppressing corroborating evidence in a fact-checking article seems more like malpractice than misrepresentation.
The messages are just part of the information that the Minhaj team offered. But, even if they didn’t have this evidence, shouldn’t it bother us that an article accusing someone of faking the racism, bias and threats they have endured requires the accused to prove himself?
As I mentioned in my initial reaction to this story, it is stunning that an FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, who surveilled innocent citizens, solely because they were Muslim, was asked to verify whether he’d met Minhaj. We hear in the response video that Minhaj was asked during his interview if he gave Monteilh a heads-up before including him in his stand-up routine. That Malone would even ask that is mind-bogglingly tone deaf.
According to Minhaj, he swapped Monteilh in "The King’s Jester" for the actual informant he had encountered growing up in Davis, California because Monteilh was a more ridiculous character. Folks may take issue with Minhaj’s decision, but where is the outrage over the New Yorker’s decision to interview Monteilh in the first place? As Minhaj points out, Monteilh was part of a vast network of FBI informants whose efforts led to innocent Muslim Americans going to prison. All of that is true.
So, it's not just ignoring evidence that should bother us, but the witch hunt itself. Malone states, in reference to Minhaj’s story about the fallout from "Patriot Act’s" Saudi Arabia episode, “But it didn’t happen to you.” The truth, though, is that it did happen, just not exactly the way he performs it.
After "Patriot Act’s" Saudi Arabia episode, Minhaj did get an envelope with white powder sent to his house when his daughter was home, he did get threatening messages, he did need heightened security and he did have his episode taken down in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, "Patriot Act’s" Saudi Arabia episode was daring, risky and entirely true. In 2018, "Patriot Act" was awarded a Peabody for its “important new take on politics and popular culture and giving voice to politically engaged young people in a diverse American polity.” Yet, rather than cover the impact of the episode or how it led to one of the most politically incisive satire shows in U.S. history, we got a story that focused on whether Minhaj had taken his daughter to the hospital.
Why would a journalist ignore the social significance of Minhaj’s political satire in a piece about his ability to host "The Daily Show"?
Off with his head?
In a weird twist of fate, Minhaj is currently touring a stand-up show titled “Off With His Head.” The title was certainly meant to be ironic. The question is, will it be? Will his response video be enough to reverse the attacks he endured in the wake of the New Yorker’s manufactured scandal?
As many have noted, part of the scandal stemmed from the fact that satirists have been more trusted at times than journalists. That trust depends on the sincere ways that political comedians work to inform the public and unpack the faulty logic, flawed binaries, hype and sensationalism so common in journalism today.
Comedy built, even in part, on representing a marginalized community also carries expectations of authenticity and veracity. Minhaj thought his embellishments were within the lines or he wouldn’t have unashamedly admitted them. Still, he has acknowledged that these revelations may have affected his audience’s trust.
It is one thing, however, to ask questions about the bonds of trust between a comedian and their audience. It’s another to suggest that an entire career is based on fraud.
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The truth, though, is that Minhaj’s career has not been based on deception, even if the New Yorker tried really, really hard to cast it as so. On the contrary, his career has been based on creatively pushing the boundaries between comedic wit, personal narratives, informative analysis and ironic insight.
While it seems likely Minhaj was the first stand-up comedian to be fact-checked, there is absolutely no doubt that he is the first to respond to a fact-checking witch hunt with his own satirical, Panama Papers-style response video. In yet another irony to this story, confronting a manufactured scandal offered Minhaj a groundbreaking opportunity to demonstrate, yet again, how effective his satire is at getting at the truth. His video does a far better job than the New Yorker did of offering a factual story that is both entertaining and true. And that’s pretty funny.