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"Daily Show" To Blame For Newsweek Reporter's Imprisonment In Iran?

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:45 PM ET

Tds In Iran

While we're on the topic of traversing the aesthetic distance between comedic satire and reality, why not check in with Glynnis MacNicol over at Mediaite -- who dug out an interesting question from Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari's account of the 118 days he was held in captivity in an Iranian jail, under suspicion that he was "a spy for the CIA, MI6, Mossad... and NEWSWEEK."

That question being: "Was "The Daily Show" in part to blame for Bahari's imprisonment?"

The relevant portion of Bahari's story reads as follows:

"Well," said Mr. Rosewater [Bahari's nickname for his interrogator], who had been fairly quiet up to this point, "we have interesting video footage of you. That may persuade you to be more cooperative." I could not imagine what that might be. Something personal? Something that might compromise my friends? But...I reminded myself I had done nothing wrong.


I saw the flicker of a laptop monitor under my blindfold. Then I heard someone speaking. It was a recording of another prisoner's confession. "It's not that one," said the second interrogator. "It's the one marked 'Spy in coffee shop.' " Mr. Rosewater fumbled with the computer. The other man stepped in to change the DVD. And then I heard the voice of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

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As it turns out, what Bahari's interrogators unspooled for him was his appearance in the segments that "The Daily Show" produced when it sent correspondent Jason Jones to Tehran. In those segments, Jones presented himself as a broad caricature of a woefully-underinformed American journalist, attempting to look "intrepid" as he searched high and low for confirmations of the broad, cliched ideas about Iranian society that he'd conceived prior to arrival. Bahari's participation in the show's segments ended up landing the Newsweek reporter into a situation that was as deadly serious as it was absurd, in which he had to explain the Daily Show's jokes to an interrogator who was threatening him with bodily harm and imprisonment.

"It's just a joke. Nothing serious. It's stupid." I was getting worried. "I hope you are not suggesting that [Jason Jones] is a real spy."


"Can you tell us why an American journalist pretending to be a spy has chosen you to interview?" asked the man with the creases. "We know from your contacts and background that you told them who to interview for their program." The other Iranians interviewed in Jason's report--a former vice president and a former foreign minister--had been arrested a week before me as part of the IRGC's sweeping crackdown. "It's just comedy," I said, feeling weak.

"Do you think it's also funny that you say Iran and America have a lot in common?" Mr. Rosewater asked, declaring that he was losing patience with me. He took my left ear in his hand and started to squeeze it as if he were wringing out a lemon. Then he whispered into it. "This kind of behavior will not help you. Many people have rotted in this prison. You can be one of them."

Of those segments, MacNicol says, "at the time those clips aired I found them non-funny and borderline offensive -- fake news tends to lose its thrust when real news reporters (and civilians) are risking their lives to get the actual news out to world."

Personally, I'm not as damning -- I think there was some value in showing that much of what Iranian protesters were fighting for was founded in a way of life and in values that we would recognize... and that too often the media glibly elides over such things to make pointless bellicosity seem palatable. But the segments did err, in my opinion, in making too many jokes about the danger that Jason Jones was not in during a time when many of the Iranians he met in Iran ended up in such real, deadly danger.

What I am reminded of, reading this, is that one of the dangers in satire is that when it's done right, you might miss the joke entirely. This is something that's as true now as it was when Jonathan Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal." But the issue of whether or not autocratic, fundamentalist regimes are capable of "getting" a joke is beside the point. The fact is that Iran is run by deranged and paranoid despots, who need only the thinnest of pretexts to lock people up or do them harm. This is a pretty sobering way to learn that lesson.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

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