Last Wednesday, we published a “letter of apology” purportedly written by Bruce Springsteen, in which The Boss claimed to feel guilty for not taking a more participatory role in opposing Donald Trump during the presidential election cycle.
The real writer of the story, Tim Sommer, worked through several drafts as he tried to get to the bottom of why he felt such a disconnect between Springsteen’s “champion of the working man” persona and his relative quiet over Trump’s ascension.
When Sommer originally sent me the letter, his major concerns were the same as yours—will it effectively encourage a dialogue that addresses his frustrations? Is it illegitimate, or worse, “fake news,” to present this letter without explicitly labeling it as satire? Won’t it piss people off?
It took less than an hour after the letter’s publication before the answers started to come, and we learned a lot about satire and context in this age of muddled, phony narratives and hyper-partisan groupthink. It also taught us how the left and the right respond to a beloved American icon becoming an object of criticism.
Our real-time analytics reader showed a clear ideological divide between reader responses, supporting a theory many liberals hold that Trump voters simply don’t read. The tweets above are emblematic of the lot, insofar as they immediately rush to criticize Springsteen’s arrogance and hubris for thinking that he could have possibly effected the momentum of their movement.
The ensuing virality was confusing enough for fact-checking website Snopes to feel the need to debunk the piece, specifically noting Sommer’s byline at the top of the story, and the end sign-off wherein he attaches an asterisk accompanied by “Not Actually Bruce” to the signature.
“Although the missive was not explicitly labeled as ‘satire,’ The Observer dropped a few not-so-subtle hints to indicate that it was not an actual apology letter from The Boss,” wrote Snopes’ Dan Evon.
The power of satire is when its powerful provocations function on a subversive level, not always explicitly comic in parody, not always transparent in its absurdities. But if there’s one thing journalists need to be mindful of in this age of fake news and accelerating, unverified narratives, it’s that we must hypercontextualize everything. Nobody is quite sure what sources to trust, and all outlets have a vested interest in controlling their own narrative.
But was this really “fake news”? That term was coined in reference to hyper-partisan Facebook-websites, primarily trafficking through Facebook, that present conjecture or unverified sources as straight, hard facts. It’s also been hijacked by the Trump administration in an attempt to cloud the narrative, undermine “the opposition party” and confuse the public. We all ought to take some personal responsibility for drawing the line between satire, which clearly presents itself as phony or absurd to prove a point or facilitate a dialogue, and actual “fake news.”
Here at Observer, where we still must answer for the association to our former owner and publisher Jared Kushner, we understand the importance of this boundary. We also understand how our desire to publish this work ultimately fed into some unfair echo-chambered assumptions about the integrity of our reporting, which this liberal with his master’s in journalism assures you is still put through a rigorous process of sourcing, verification and fact-checking.
But, as Snopes suggested, the boundary was clearly drawn by Sommer in his Bruce Springsteen letter, “though not explicitly labeled as satire.” Satire loses its sting and its bite when spelled out to placate an audience, and as such, presenting the letter as we did kept the punch intact.
It’s fascinating how so few in this country have any capacity for satire, and it’s a little bit troubling, too. Comics have become some of our most sage-like pundits these days, and as the artist Devendra Banhart once told me, “Silliness and absurdity…can be a very powerful tool, in fact, for looking at something serious.”
Failing to subscribe to this idea, the tweeting echo-chamber left made their vitriol known.
This thread was started by Jessica Skolnik, the managing editor for Bandcamp Daily, who has been vocal about her disdain for both Observer and my work in the past. But her inclusion of the word “we” in this tweet is curious, suggesting that she’s at least trying to understand the intention of the story this time, rather than simply fostering division.
The two tweets below hers mirror her frustration, although they forgo any attempt to answer her rhetorical question, immediately going for the jugular. This opportunity for dialogue came and went as an echo-chamber of media wonks with firm ideas of what does and doesn’t constitute legitimate editorial used their platform to shit-talk instead of attempting to think critically to unpack the writer’s true intentions.
Let me oblige them.
The theory of “HyperNormalisation,” as popularized in Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary of the same name from last year, suggests that capitalist interests on both sides of the political divide intentionally promote a narrative of cultural consumption that maintains the status quo and operates inside of an infrastructure conducive to the profits of ownership.
Don Giovanni Records’ co-founder Joe Steinhardt told me as much in a wonderful conversation we had two weeks ago. We discussed the importance of artists and creatives owning their own work again, which he believes requires creators to operate outside the umbrella of monied interests that turn our work into content slurry.
Another theory that comes up often in artist interviews, The Accelerationist Manifesto, suggests that these capitalist systems also have a vested interest in speeding up how quickly we absorb and digest everything from creative work to the news.
If I may be so bold to speak for Sommer, the heart of his letter suggested that Springsteen remains a prototypical example of how even those we treat as subversive countercultural icons ultimately communicate their messages from within those very infrastructures that own everything.
This should matter to anyone outside of the art and culture beats, too, because we’re all going to need to start investigating how the narratives we follow play out with more pattern recognition if we want to rescue reality and facts from an increasingly conspiratory executive branch.
This means that we all ought to become media critics, too.
We’re going to need to look at a story or a trajectory of news from “across the street,” analyzing thematic repetitions and making sure we source everything one slightly more “meta” degree removed from our own echo chambers.
Attacking Sommer’s intentions instead of trying to unpack them is not how that’s done. Nor is reading something clearly written in hyperbolic, alarmist prose without checking the byline at the top of the story or the factors surrounding the context in which it was written.
The function of good satire is to pull at the seams of the voodoo doll stuffed with bullshit, and Sommer sure sniffed out something pungent with his.