Barack And BriWi: Forget About Gravitas, What About Bias?

03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2007-11-05-cap0038.bmpWhat constitutes an endorsement? If you contribute an op-ed to the New York Times, does that mean that you agree with everything in the paper? Of course not. But what if you're the guest-editor of the New York Times? What kind of stake do you have in the content of the paper then? Or, say, another example: What if you're the guest host of a popular television variety show, presumably with the schlep to veto any idea, and a presidential candidate does an attention-grabbing walk-on? Could that be seen to be an implicit endorsement? In the wake of Brian Williams' otherwise seamless and not-journalism-forever-ruining stint hosting SNL, that may be a legitimate question.

The New York Times's Kit Seelye calls it "mocking" in the headline and "skewering" in the lede, and the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet noted that "he one-upped" Hillary in the sketch, "working in a campaign theme along the way — that he has nothing to hide and the calculating Clinton does." I'm going to note that he maintained his above-the-fray demeanor, being the only candidate to know that Amy Poehler's Hillary was a bride and not a witch — the Politics of Hope in action, right there.

So: Never mind fretting about how BriWi's journalistic integrity would hold up after trying his hand at comedy (and succeeding, by most accounts) — what about fretting for his neutrality? Sure, he keeps his politics more private than his Ambien habit but for those who are looking for it, Saturday's Obama cameo could be construed as an implicit endorsement.

This comes down to a few questions: (a) Should anything on SNL be construed as agenda-driven where the agenda is anything other than getting a laugh, and (b) Even if not, how much do appearances matter?

As to (a), having delved into the matter in the past, I'm going to come down on the side of "no" — SNL's agenda is to get a laugh. I put this question directly to people like Amy Poehler, Al Franken and Lorne Michaels last year and the general consensus was, if it's not funny it's cut (SNL aficionados will know that fully prepped and costumed sketches that don't perform at the dress rehearsal are killed en route to air, no matter what the topic). Even so, Shales strokes his chin and pronounces it "odd" that there were two sketches lampooning Democrats and none about Republicans, perhaps forgetting that there had been a Dem debate earlier that week, and that the previous show had featured a sketch ripping Fred Thompson. And Shales, who literally wrote the book on SNL, should also know that there are about fifty nascent sketches read at the weekly table read that are narrowed down through the brutal democracy of the laugh-o-meter (and whether Lorne Michaels cracks a smile). Taking stands, too, is rare at SNL — the only two that come to mind are Nora Dunn refusing to participate when Andrew Dice Clay was hosting, and Sinead O'Connor ripping up a picture of the Pope (though she was the nutty musical guest and the stand SNL took was to not light up the "applause" sign after she did so). Really, though, it's about finding the funny, or trying to.

So, let's get to (b). Is the appearance of a potential bias enough? In this day and age of rabid left-right wrangling and unabashed partisanism, Williams could cock his head to the left or the right and probably get a blogger crying foul (On the left, commenters here at HuffPo have freaked out on him in the past,* and on the right the folks at Newsbusters never fail to smack him down). There's a 2007-11-05-ThinkyBriWi.JPGreasonableness test at play here, and it's a pretty gray area. First it's the question of opportunity — could Clinton or any other candidate score a walk-on, too, if they wanted? Well, sure — the NYT piece notes that Hillary Clinton herself was scheduled for the season premiere (though she pulled out due to a scheduling conflict). And if the real Kucinich wanted to come on and make out with his wife,** well, I bet the writers would find a way to make it work (if they weren't on strike).

But does this opportunity — Obama looking good on SNL at Hillary's expense — point to bias? On the one hand, it was in a sketch that gave Obama a chance to spout a talking point...on the other hand, when do visiting politicians giving cameos not get coddled by SNL? (Whatever Hillary Clinton ends up doing, we all know she won't do it unless the writers make her look damn good.) On the one hand, it happened on Williams' show, and TV is all about appearances...but on the other hand, if we're to believe that then that logic assumes that Williams is also a cheesy-bread loving penny-tossing mustachioed superspy who was once on The Leap. That said, he specifically opted out of the "Gay Dumbledore" sketch (but oh, to see him in a Gryffindor scarf — and, since it was set in a gay bar, maybe some invisibility chaps).

Um, now I lost my train of thought, but the point is this: Appearances do matter, and the appearance of Barack Obama at the top of "Saturday Night Live" on the night that Brian Williams was hosting was obviously going to be noted. Can viewers tell the difference between a cameo on a comedy show and an official endorsement by that host? Of course they can, just as they can tell the difference between Brian Williams delivering the news and Brian Williams wearing a funny hat. But in this fraught election season, these questions are bound to be raised — sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. (Commenters, go crazy figuring out which one this is!) I don't really care, I can't vote. I'm Canadian — not unlike Williams' hand-picked musical guest, Feist. Coincidence? Nah, it just looks that way.

Obama Plays Convincing Obama in a Skit Mocking Clinton
Barack Obama on SNL (full sketch) [BarackObama's YouTube page]

*Over an excerpt from Howart Kurtz's "Reality Show" wherein Williams had actually recalled how on 9/11 he had felt that way, in the context of looking back on the aftermath and acknowledging White House's "political management" of the press in the period that followed. Full context here; apoplexy-inciting excerpt here.
**Never mind that she actually went on the Daily Show as a FLILF last week. There is a "gravita-tas" joke here, somewhere.

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