When TV journalists use satire to barbecue the high and mighty – and I’m part of the fun19 june 2014, 13:22
One of the things I’ve learned as a journalist is that if you want to skewer someone, the most effective way may not be to criticize them directly.
It’s sometimes better to use satire. When you employ that wonderful literary device, you can criticize and ridicule at the same time.
The criticism isn’t head-on – it’s in the form of a glancing blow. Ridicule is what makes satire so effective. Most people hate being laughed at. It hurts worse than straight-up criticism.
I’m bringing up satire because I saw two young television journalists in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, where I’ve been on a writing assignment, use it in a masterful way to stick knives in the ribs of the power structure.
It can be dangerous in Ukraine to criticize head-on, but satire is a worthy substitute.
Dmitriy Mikhailenko and Julia Presnyakova unleashed a barrage of satire when they interviewed me live for an hour on the “Studio Guest” commentary program for the Third Digital TV channel.
Journalists Dmitriy Mikhailenko and Julia Presnyakova on the set of the Third Digital TV channel in Odessa, Ukraine. Photo by Hal Foster
I wanted my Tengrinews readers to know about it because their approach was so different from that of any public-affairs-show hosts I’ve met. It was brilliant, creative and funny all at the same time – and I’m sure it made a lot of viewers chortle.The link to the program, which is in Russian and English, is http://tretiy.tv/20899.
Let me be immodest for a moment. Dima and Julia may have picked the perfect guest for a show that imbued satire. That’s because I fancy myself a comedian as well as journalist. I not only embraced their humorous approach, but cracked jokes that I thought would add to the fun.
The two journalists started the program by asking me to watch a video that showed two-meter-wide potholes filled with water from a recent rain. The footage started with a young woman in beach clothes stretching out next to a pothole as if she were at a lakeside resort.
Another funny vignette on the same theme was a guy fishing in the pothole.
When the video was over, Dima asked me: “Mr. Foster, what do you think of this?”
The satire was obviously back-door criticism of the Odessa officials in charge of road repair.
I answered with a smile that the potholes needed to be fixed. Then I added that a few years ago I had seen potholes in roads outside Kremenchug in eastern Ukraine that were so large they would have swallowed a Volkswagen Beatle.
The reason, locals there told me, was that those in charge of fixing the roads were pocketing the road-repair money that the national government had given them.
Next Dima and Julia showed me footage of a dozen or more members of Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, becoming so angry at each other during a parliamentary debate that they began brawling in the aisles.
When the young TV hosts asked what I thought of their lawmakers’ decorum, I responded: “I think Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to become head of the Verkhovna Rada to make them behave.”
Then they showed an even funnier video involving a Hovno Rada member.
It depicted a bunch of guys from an opposition party surrounding and de-pantsing the parliamentarian.
Yes, you read that right: de-pantsing him. The opposition guys pulled off the lawmaker’s pants and underwear, and held the underwear up like a trophy.
That last time I’d seen a prank like that was in high school, when a group of guys who didn’t like another guy de-pantsed him to humiliate him in front of his classmates.
After I watched the video, Dima asked with a devilish grin: “Mr. Foster, don’t you think a member of the Rada should be able to afford something better than Calvin Klein?”
He was referring to the brand of underwear that the opposition guy had held up like a trophy.
“I think maybe he could have had something with gold stitching,” I said.
Dima and Julia laughed.
A studio TV monitor catches Dima and Julia clowning. Photo by Hal Foster
Then, feeling devilish myself, I added: “Maybe the guy got a benefit out of this. It gave him a chance to show his girlfriend he has a good popka.”
Julia was totally unprepared for my use of the Russian colloquialism for “bottom” on the show. A look of shock crossed her face and then she broke into laughter.
She kept chuckling for several minutes. And the whole time, she was looking at me with this bemused expression on her face, as if she were thinking: “Did he REALLY just say that on the air?”
The next video was of the former mayor of Odessa dancing in a circle with six or seven people in animal costumes – bears, rabbits and so on. The kind of costumes you see some of the entertainers at Disneyland wearing.
Dima asked what I thought about a politician displaying this kind of behavior. He didn’t use the words “undignified” or “silly,” but that was clearly what he was thinking.
“He looks like the host of a children’s television show,” I said.
Then I added: “You know, some American politicians are going on entertainment shows these days.”
Many Americans have stopped watching news and commentary programs, so savvy politicians are going on other kinds of shows to court them, I said. These include late-night talk shows and comedy shows.
President Obama, with his laid-back demeanor, has done a good job of using these shows to charm voters, I said.
Dima and Julia did ask me some serious questions. Ukraine, after all, is in one of its worst crises since World War II. We discussed the fighting in eastern Ukraine, the Crimean situation and the conflict between nationalists and pro-Russians in Odessa on May 2 that left 46 dead.
These discussions were heavy, and no fun. But they needed to be covered, given that the issues are hanging over Ukraine like a dark cloud.
Then it was time for a light touch again.
The last funny video that Dima and Julia showed me was of a sexy-DJ contest in Odessa’s namesake city in Texas.
They showed me and their program’s viewers footage of the winner of the contest, a blonde named Megan with very large . . . well, you know.
The video included shots of a football game. I’m not talking about American football, where the teams bang heads against each other, as if they thought they were members of the Verkhovna Rada.
Dima asked what I knew about Odessa, Texas.
I told him it was a small city in Texas’ cattle country, that it was in an oil-producing area and that it has long had one of America’s top high school football teams.
Then he said he needed to ask me a very important question: “Which is better, Odessa, Ukraine, or Odessa, Texas?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Odessa, Ukraine. I wouldn’t go to Odessa, Texas, even to meet Megan,” I said.
The television show ended.
The entire staff of Third Digital TV gathered around the round table where the show had been shot, and enthused that they’d thought the program was a hit. I agreed.
And I told the guys in charge of the station, Executive Producer Alexander Filipov and General Manager Gregori Blida, that I believed one of the reasons the journalists had the pluck to create such a saucy show was their bosses’ relaxed, encouraging leadership.
Third Digital TV’s general manager, Gregori Blida, and executive producer, Alexander Filipov. Photo by Hal Foster
I’ve been on television many times – as a show host, a commentator, even an actor in dramas.
But I walked away from the Third Digital TV set thinking I hadn’t had so much fun in a long, long time.