Barbershop: The Ethics Of Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Who Is America?'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today, we're going to talk about a new TV show that has made a lot of waves over the past week and a half. It's called "Who Is America?" It features Sacha Baron Cohen in a variety of disguises interviewing politicians and other public figures - And I use that term interviewing loosely - to occasionally shocking effect. Among his targets are prominent political figures like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA?")
SACHA BARON COHEN: (As character) It is a great honor to be next to a real mensch, Dick Cheney. Shalom.
DICK CHENEY: Thank you. It's so good to be with you today. I look forward to the program.
COHEN: (As character) You started so many wars - Afghanistan, Iraq one and Iraq two. Which was your favorite war, and why?
CHENEY: Oh, I think it was what we did in Desert Storm.
MARTIN: Earlier this week, the show claimed a political casualty, its first - Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer announced that he would be stepping down after drawing widespread condemnation for shouting racial epithets and actually baring his naked backside during a segment of the show. So why is this a thing? Well, several of Cohen's targets are outraged, not just for being pranked but because they think it's aimed at them for being conservatives. And it also has been compared to a project of a conservative activist named James O'Keefe who's tried to undermine news outlets and organizations he deems liberal by recording hidden-camera videos of their employees under false pretenses.
So we wanted to ask what's fair and what's not fair game - political pranksterism (ph) in the era of fake news. To help us parse all this, we called Paul Farhi. He's a media reporter at The Washington Post. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Paul, thank you so much for joining us once again.
PAUL FARHI: Thank you.
MARTIN: And joining us from our studios in New York is Sopan Deb. He is a culture reporter for The New York Times. Sopan Deb, thank you so much for talking with us as well.
SOPAN DEB: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Sopan, I'm going to start with you. For people who haven't had a chance to see this series, "Who Is America?" - tell us a little bit more about who the characters are and a little more about Sacha Baron Cohen. Like, what's he up to?
DEB: So Sacha Baron Cohen is kind of known for playing these outlandish characters. Many of them emanated from "Da Ali G Show," so Borat, Bruno. The Showtime special kind of dropped out of nowhere. It was a little bit of a surprise show. And in this particular show, he plays an Israeli former, you know, security agent. He plays a - due respect to NPR - an NPR-loving liberal. He plays several characters. And this is probably, by far, the most politically-inclined show that he's done. And it's also the one that I think - the one that has got the most attention so far.
MARTIN: Well, you know, he did - mention - try to interview - if you want to call it that - Ted Koppel, ABC journalist who is also now contributing to CBS. He's written many, many books - a former colleague of mine, in the spirit of full disclosure.
DEB: And Koppel caught on right away.
MARTIN: Koppel caught in and just said, look, this is not a good use of my time. One of the segments that's caused, as we said, a lot of controversy is the one where Cohen poses as someone called Colonel Erran Morad, this hyper-macho antiterrorism expert. And in a segment, this Georgia State Rep participates in what he believes to be a counterterrorism training program.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA")
COHEN: (As Colonel Erran Morad) Now, I am going to teach you how to use your buttocks to intimidate ISIS.
JASON SPENCER: Oh.
COHEN: (As Colonel Erran Morad) Show me the buttock. No, trousers down. OK, go.
COHEN: (As Colonel Erran Morad) Good. One more time, but louder with America.
COHEN: (As Colonel Erran Morad) Good. We say in the Mossad - I mean, not in the Mossad - if you want to win, you show some skin.
COHEN: (As Colonel Erran Morad) OK. Show it to me.
MARTIN: He has said subsequently that his judgment was compromised because he actually had been the subject of certain threats. And so that's why, you know, he says he reacted as he did. But this kind of raises the question of, is there a political intent? Paul, do you want to jump in on this?
FARHI: Yeah. I think there's a political intent. I think the intent is to expose conservative extremism - racism, Islamophobia, a lot of unflattering things about people. And there have been no liberals portrayed on the show or taken down on this show...
MARTIN: Bernie Sanders...
FARHI: ...That had been portrayed.
MARTIN: Well, there - what would be the intent of going after Bernie Sanders and Ted Koppel for that?
FARHI: There's two things on this show. One is just Sacha Baron Cohen being a comedian and acting like a goof, which he does very well. And Bernie Sanders is essentially baffled, as Ted Koppel was. They didn't really, you know, light themselves on fire the way some of the racists that Sacha Baron Cohen exposed. The other side of this is the people who do expose themselves as racists or extremists, and he's been very good at that.
MARTIN: What do you make of - now, Sopan wrote about this. He wrote a piece in The Times comparing or at least evaluating the comparison that some have made between Sacha Baron Cohen's work and the work of this conservative activist James O'Keefe. O'Keefe and his Project Veritas had famously used hidden cameras and false identities to try to capture a controversial video and audio snippets from groups like ACORN and also media organizations, including NPR. And there are those who'd make the argument that, you know, if people are outraged about Cohen, then, you know, what about O'Keefe and back and forth? So Paul, what's your take on that?
FARHI: Well, there's different intent and different technique. Sacha Baron Cohen goes in there and pretends to be somebody he's not. But the people who he talks with know they're being filmed, know there are cameras around them. They know they're making a television show, so they are speaking effectively to the public. What James O'Keefe does is, by using subterfuge, try to infiltrate - and with hidden cameras, tries to capture people saying embarrassing things.
And they're also different in intent. Sacha Baron Cohen is there for a laugh. He's there for entertainment purposes. James O'Keefe is there to make political points. And you can say in some ways there may - that might be a distinction without a difference. But one thinks he's a journalist, and the other knows he's an entertainer.
MARTIN: As a journalist who's using multiple deceptions and claiming that he's getting at the truth.
DEB: And it should be noted that...
MARTIN: Sopan, go ahead.
DEB: ...And it should be noted that James O'Keefe has also been held criminally liable for his approach. And as Paul mentioned, I think something very important is that his subjects don't know that they're being filmed. And then the other thing is James O'Keefe has been accused many, many times of deceptive editing. And with Cohen, that accusation has not been as prevalent. It's happened.
So in the case of, I think it was on the first episode, several lawmakers said on camera that they were in favor of arming toddlers. Now, in the way that it was edited into the show, it made it seem like they were in favor of arming toddlers in the U.S. But, you know, those that were featured that segment - particularly Joe Walsh, the former congressman and now a radio host, Dana Rohrabacher - they said, whoa, whoa, whoa. We thought we were just talking about a program in Israel. So that's the limit to the deceptive editing accusation when it comes towards Sacha Baron Cohen. With James O'Keefe, I mean, it's nonstop.
MARTIN: I do find myself carious about why some of these people didn't leave and just say, I politely decline to participate in this. I mean, I don't know about you, but I've - we've all been at public events where people have asked and wanted to discuss things that are just...
DEB: It's absolutely...
MARTIN: ...Out of the norm. I mean, like, you know, like...
DEB: Yeah. It is...
MARTIN: Sopan, go ahead.
DEB: ...It is astonishing. It is astonishing. However, you know, something - I spoke to Joe Walsh about his process of getting duped. And what he told me was in his case, you know, he got an email from a producer named Ashley Winthrop - or purporting to be named Ashley Winthrop - who said, OK, you are going to be - you are a friend of Israel, and you're going to receive an award for this. We're going to fly you to D.C. We're going to take you to this, you know, studio. But before the camera started rolling, Sacha Baron Cohen apparently, in character, spoke to Joe Walsh for a half hour, being totally normal to make him seem at ease - asking perfectly, you know, normal questions - why do you love Israel so much? You know, what do you think of the political climate there? etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It was only when the cameras started rolling that it got a little strange. But up until that point, 98 percent of the interactions had been totally normal with nothing to red flag, and that's how it kind of happens.
FARHI: And there's a segment...
FARHI: ...set in Kingman, Ariz., where there isn't a whole lot of deception. Basically, he goes in posing as a developer and has a town hall meeting and suggests that the development is going to be a very large mosque. That's it - then the reaction. And the reaction is mosque equals, Islam equals terrorism - and the outrage just flows from there. No one was tricked in some - in any real sense. They were just presented with a set of circumstances and they reacted.
MARTIN: So let just (unintelligible). So let me ask each of you for your thoughts now about this - about what is fair game and what is not fair game. Because I think, you know, Paul, because we're in a moment when I think viewers are being asked to engage with their own ethics in choosing what to watch and what to participate in. That's fair, right? As with the NFL, for example, people are saying well, if you have certain views and beliefs about certain things, should you engage with this content at all? Is it a fair question to ask about this? What's your take on it?
FARHI: I guess it depends on who you are and what you are. If you present yourself as a journalist, you are not allowed to deceive people. It's just simply, ethically wrong to present yourself as something that you are not. If you're an entertainer, if your intent is to do what used to be known as candid camera, all though in this case there's no candid camera - there's a camera, I think you're - you know, fair game.
MARTIN: Sopan, what do you think?
DEB: Yeah, I totally agree with Paul. I also note that, you know, it's - nothing is monolithic, right? So I think you get to judge each individual segment by its own merit. So, for example, there are some segments - so in the case of Jason Spencer in - who we talked about before, if you watch his segment, in the statement that he gave, he said he was kind of, you know, duped into it. You know, he was in fear for his life. But if you watch the segment, it doesn't seem like it took much coaxing for him to say, you know, terrible, terrible, terrible things, and mock, you know, stereotypical Asian accents and say the N-word and say terrible, terrible things. It didn't seem like he was uncomfortable with saying those things.
In the case of the Arizona segment that Paul talked about, you know, yes, the front end - like he was playing someone. You know, this kind of cartoonish - you know, architect, you know, type. But it didn't take much coaxing for the people in that room to say terrible things - terrible, racist things. So there is a little bit of value, I think, for those type segments.
However, when he - in the first episode, he, Sacha Baron Cohen, goes to an art gallery in Los Angeles. And he gets this art - he embarrasses her on camera for - it doesn't seem like there is much aim to that. And when he plays an NPR-loving liberal, you know, and he goes to dinner at these Trump supporters' houses, there doesn't seem to be anything productive that comes out of that. So it's a pretty interesting - but I do think that every single segment has its own - you know, you can judge each segment on its own merits.
FARHI: The only thing productive, I thought, was comedy. And the joke was often on Sacha Baron Cohen and his character being so absurd. It wasn't always on the individual that he was punking. Comedy, that's always valuable.
MARTIN: OK. That's Paul Farhi. He's a media reporter at The Washington Post. He was here with us in Washington, D.C. Sopan Deb is a culture reporter for The New York Times. He was with us from our studios in New York. Paul, Sopan, thank you so much for talking with us.
FARHI: Thank you.
DEB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.