WaPo Jazz Piece: Is it Satire? It’s Terrible Either Way

Returning to that opinion piece on jazz I discussed earlier, there’s now someone in the comments claiming to be the author saying that the piece was actually meant to be satirical. There’s no flair confirming the commenter as the author, as is typical, so it’s pretty likely that it’s just someone else trying to cause more controversy.

Regardless, even if we take this at face value and the piece really is satire, the piece still fails at its purpose – perhaps more egregiously than if it were serious.

Taken as satire, it’s not really clear which parts are even satirical. There’s not really any humor to tip off the reader, nor is there anything that is so patently absurd it must be satire. In fact, the points made by the author are all things that one could easily imagine could be included in a serious (though misguided) opinion piece. The commenter claims that the piece can be identified as satire because of its poor arguments. Of course, this is something that a parody commenter account would say too. Anyway, parroting the poorly reasoned arguments of others is not satire. In common online parlance, it is trolling. If it is satire, this would be an example of a musical form of Poe’s Law: at some point a parody that is too serious becomes indistinguishable from real arguments.

Again assuming it is satire, I think the worst part may be the wildly inappropriate choice of venue. The author primarily writes morning news pieces for the Post with a mix of serious and pop culture news. He doesn’t seem to have much of a track record for opinion pieces, let alone a satirical piece about music on the actual opinion page. The Washington Post is probably the second most important newspaper in the country after the New York Times, so people tend to look to its opinion page for serious commentary on current events. There’s no reason to expect to see a satire by this author in this publication. I could understand seeing a snarking parody by Maureen Dowd in the Times opinion page but not this.

I also can’t remember ever seeing a piece about music on the opinion page. Because the Post opinion page focuses on politics and current events rather than media and entertainment, it is not an appropriate venue for parody or satire on a relatively obscure topic like jazz. One of the most important things about writing is knowing one’s audience, and the Post’s readership is not the right audience for satire. The average reader is simply not going to be knowledgable enough to recognize anything but the most obvious parody. A writer shouldn’t expect otherwise for a publication with such a broad audience. Satire would have more of a place in a publication specializing in music, as a more savvy audience would benefit more than the very general audience of a national newspaper.

Satire is meant to lead the audience to see the absurdity or the injustice being discussed. In a famous example, Swift’s Modest Proposal starts out giving serious arguments (Ireland has major problems with poverty) and gradually devolves into absurdity (fix overpopulation and poverty by eating Irish babies). If the audience can’t be expected to recognize absurd statements from reasonable ones, the satire fails. In the case of the Post opinion piece, the satire would have the opposite effect of what was intended. Uninformed readers would not be taught anything. They would go from uninformed to misinformed, having learned falsehoods from a supposed expert. Perhaps this was the point. Perhaps the author wanted to use the prominent position of his piece in the national media to laugh at the members of his audience who agree with his statements. That would mean that the Post’s editors also failed at their mission because it is left to people like me (and various bloggers far more knowledgable about the subject than me) to try to dispel these falsehoods.