April Fool’s Day seems a fitting frame for this tale, in which TV’s Comedy Central lampooned the U.S. last month for defunding UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — after UNESCO’s nose-thumbing decision last fall to grant membership to the Palestinian Authority. Promising an “epic” expose, The Daily Show’s host, Jon Stewart, dispatched comedian John Oliver to produce a story about the big bad U.S. versus good little UNESCO. Oliver dug all the way to an interview with a UNESCO flack (or maybe the UNESCO flack dug all the way to John Oliver), who mentioned that when the U.S. pulled its funding of more than $78 million per year from UNESCO, the impoverished West African country of Gabon stepped up to pledge $2 million in solidarity with UNESCO. So, the doughty Oliver flew to Gabon, to deliver a report from the field on the generosity of the Gabonese government, and the presumed horrors that will now afflict the world if America continues to deprive Paris-based UNESCO of great stacks of U.S. tax dollars.
As comedy, it was all very entertaining: satire wrapped around the come-hither implication that beneath the laugh lies a poignant and serious piece of reportage. Noting the praise showered upon The Daily Show’s UNESCO report by an array of “journalistic outlets,” a writer for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, extolled the special powers of comedy writers “who take the time to understand the inside baseball” and “in the search for absurdity” see with eagle eyes the “real world consequences.”
Except, as a piece of reporting, The Daily Show’s UNESCO “epic” was a complete joke. It was UNESCO propaganda, masquerading as satire, masquerading as reporting. It had everything to do with slick repackaging of UNESCO’s own self-serving “talking points,” and almost nothing to do with the real world. This was fantasy UNESCO, and, for that matter, fantasy Gabon, all dolled up for the Comedy Central set — please check your dictators, terrorists, and spendthrift feather-bedding international bureaucrats at the door.
If Oliver actually went to Gabon at all — and from the scenery, it appears he did — there is no evidence he asked anyone there a single informed question. Oliver did not deign to inform his audience that Gabon is one of the largest oil producers in Africa, an unfree country plundered for years by the same dynastic government whose President Ali Bongo Ondimba pledged $2 million to UNESCO (and at the same UNESCO meeting, got a four-year seat on its executive board). Oliver did not mention that a Gabonese civic group had written to UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, asking her to refuse the money, because Gabon’s people need it more. (Nor did Oliver wonder how it is that the poor little government of Gabon was able to come up with $6.5 million last year to purchase the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s mansion in Washington, apparently for use as a residence by Gabon’s ambassador).
For that matter, Oliver failed to note that UNESCO’s executive board recently reaffirmed a seat for Syria’s bloody dictatorship on its human rights committee, or that UNESCO’s board voted to host a $3 million self-aggrandizing prize donated by the longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea. He also forgot to note that UNESCO spends most of its budget on its own staff, travel and operating expenses; likes to bask in business class air travel; that more than half its staffers are based in Paris; and, in the UN cosmos of overlapping, redundant and often dysfunctional bureaucracies, a great many of its ventures (“climate education,” for instance) are duplicated by other agencies. Or perhaps he simply never bothered to find out?