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?
Compliments are due to Oliver’s skill in staging skits, which he performed so neatly that some might be mistaken for actual reporting. For instance, he included an interview with someone who appeared to be an idiot U.S. congressman, a straight man who kept trying to defend U.S. policy, and made a complete botch of it. That was staged. The interviewee, Robert Wexler, is not in Congress. He used to be, but he resigned in 2010. Yet Oliver went to Wexler for a “defense” of U.S. policy; not to any of the law-makers who might genuinely wish to defend the law in question. We might reasonably assume that when Wexler offered himself as a “congressional” target for Oliver’s ridicule, he was in on the joke.
Genuinely well-informed satire can be of great value. Ignorant buffoonery, however, is harder to defend. I don’t doubt that the Comedy Central Team meant well. But U.S. policy here is not frivolous, and it is no small matter when UNESCO, to fill its own coffers, presumes to lobby for the U.S. to change its laws — especially a law that is highly relevant today, precisely due to UNESCO’s own decisions. That is what’s going on. When UNESCO last fall became the first UN outfit to confer full membership on the Palestinian Authority, that decision triggered a U.S. law that forbids funding to any part of the UN that admits the Palestinians before they have honored their promises to negotiate peace with Israel. For UNESCO, where the U.S. had been bankrolling 22% of the regular budget, this meant the withdrawal of more than $78 million per year in U.S. funding. That’s America’s prerogative. It had the salutary effect of sending a message to other UN affiliates, thus putting the brakes on the PA’s big push last year to subvert the workings of the UN itself, where recognition of statehood is supposed to come by way of recommendation from the UN Security Council — not via an end-run at UN-related organizations.
Since then, UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova has been lobbying not for UNESCO to change its decision, but for the U.S. to scrap its law. Bokova, a Bulgarian functionary schooled in Moscow during the Cold War, has launched a propaganda blitz in the U.S., disparaging the relevant U.S. law as “outdated” and traveling to Washington to meet with U.S. law-makers. Last month, with four UNESCO staffers in her entourage, Bokova spent 12 days in the U.S., with stops in Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Bokova was very busy touting UNESCO, but the biggest boost came from The Daily Show — their “epic” linked here. And in my article for The Weekly Standard, UNESCO Funny Business, some of the items that Bokova, and the comedians, left out.