This week, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel offered the latest in his series of man-on-the-street interviews about the 2016 election. The goal of the “Lie Witness News” segment, as with the previous episodes, is to reveal contradictions or falsehoods from random people who are asked about things in the news (or, more accurately, things that Kimmel says are in the news, when they aren’t).
As it turns out, views of these segments differ among Fix staffers. Aaron Blake thinks they’re harmless entertainment. Philip Bump thinks they are rude and misleading. So we made them fight about it.
PHILIP: Here is my main problem with the Jimmy Kimmel-style “look at this idiot” videos. I am under no illusion that the world is idiot-free, nor do I believe that the people in those videos are, to a person, geniuses. But compiling a video collection of the people who say dumb things is a bit like swiping right on every single person on Tinder: Eventually you’ll get a match, but that doesn’t mean anyone actually thinks you’re attractive.
The videos imply that most people on the streets of Hollywood are morons, when, in my experience, only some of them are. It creates this grand illusion of buffoonery that’s misleading. It’s very much like one of those online polls that people create asking who they’ll vote for in the election — the results have nothing to do with reality, but they create an impression.
AARON: Why do you hate fun? Yes, it’s anecdotal. And yes, it’s no surprise that there are people on this Earth who will say just about anything if a camera is shoved in their face. Yes, they will lie repeatedly if they think that’s what the person interviewing them wants.
You are arguing that these videos are bad because they don’t PROVE anything quantitative about the American voter and might give people the wrong impression about just how dumb people are. But it’s entertainment, and it gives us a little taste of just how little some people who are Real, Actual Voters process important news events. I don’t think anybody believes this is a representative sample of the American voting public.
It’s a lot like people who insist that the polls of the 2016 election that are conducted long before the actual election “don’t matter” — or that national polls “don’t matter” because of the Electoral College. It’s true that they don’t matter if you are expecting them to predict the winner. But that’s not the goal. The goal of those polls is to provide a snapshot and glean indications of what’s to come. The goal of these videos is not to prove that all Americans are idiots; it’s to entertain by noting that some of them are.
PHILIP: Sure. I get that. I am aware that Jimmy Kimmel’s not going for the Nate-Silver-predictive-guru label but rather the Jimmy-Fallon-viral-superstar one. But here’s the flip side: It’s sort of mean?
It’s flustering to have someone walk up to you on the street and stick a camera in your face! There are people on “Jeopardy” who are presented with not-terribly-tricky questions and who choke under the pressure; it’s easy to assume that being suddenly accosted by a camera crew while you’re walking down Hollywood Boulevard would be similarly disorienting. Who’s your senator, you’re suddenly asked, and you’re like, oh man, it’s … the guy with the … and boom, you’re now part of some jerk’s clip compilation.
And that’s the best-case scenario. The best-case scenario is we’re laughing at some normal person who was caught off-guard and blanked. (Aleppo? What’s Aleppo?) The worst-case scenario is we are laughing at someone who perhaps has some sort of impairment.
You know very well that I enjoy making fun of people, especially self-important Harvard kids. But putting together compilations of the most embarrassing things said by people who are trying to respond to you in good faith is just sort of nasty.
BLAKE: Okay, you are right about the Harvard kids thing. Everything else: Wrong.
So the arguments you’ve put forward are: 1) That these videos are misleading, and now 2) That they are mean. I already dispatched with the first argument completely, according to everybody; now I’ll go after the second.
These are adults. They have free will. They can opt out of the interview. They can also freely admit that they haven’t heard about what the interviewer is asking them. They choose not to. They lie. Why do we have sympathy for liars? I would agree that someone not knowing the name of their senator would be perhaps embarrassing and unfairly putting them on the spot, but that’s not what makes these videos. It’s the lies! They apparently have very little trouble finding people who will lie through their teeth. They even found a bunch of people who lied repeatedly while talking about how dishonest Hillary Clinton was. It was funny! And the people were probably just happy they got their lying faces on TV!
No sympathy for liars.
PHILIP: So here’s my third point. These videos are not contained to the world of late-night TV. They are used by campaigns and partisans more broadly as demonstrations of how ignorant their opponents are. Kimmel is doing that, too, mocking Clinton opponents in a way that Clinton supporters will share gleefully on social media. But other examples of this genre are more explicitly partisan in a way that certainly doesn’t help the wide gulf that exists between the parties at this point.
A few years ago, there were a slew of videos interviewing people in line at Sarah Palin events. People were picked out and mocked, and viewers got a healthy dose of superiority from watching them. It fed into and off this idea that Palin was unintelligent in a way that is hard to defend.
Kimmel’s goal here is specifically to portray supporters of one candidate as idiots. That message isn’t lost on anyone. Few Trump supporters are going to watch these and laugh and say, well, that was fun. Kimmel has every right to do this, of course, but it’s simply not fair. There are all sorts of reasons to take issue with Donald Trump and his policies or Clinton and hers, but cherry-picking a few dopey comments from people randomly picked off the street — while ignoring the smart people who answered properly — is nonsense.
AARON: Okay, I’m cutting off your mic and taking the last word here.
So … I know I’m supposed to disagree with you — this being a debate and all — but on this count I’m actually almost on-board. Almost.
I completely agree that it’s underhanded and yucky for campaigns to isolate these anecdotes — these limited numbers of supporters who may say wacky things and not be representative of their opponents’ voters. There was an Evan McMullin (remember him?) ad this week featuring a voicemail left for a staffer by a racist Trump supporter. I don’t think it proves much of anything besides there is at least one racist person who supports Trump and is willing to say awful things in a voicemail.
If the goal of all of this for Kimmel is to make Trump and his supporters look bad, then that’s bad. But I don’t think that’s the goal! I think he’s trying to entertain us and maybe — just maybe — provide a little social commentary about Americans writ large, not just Trump supporters. Compared with other late-night comedians, I don’t think Kimmel has been particularly anti-Trump. Certainly not as much as Stephen Colbert, who called Trump a liar repeatedly this week, or Seth Meyers. I think Kimmel’s been tougher on Trump than Fallon, yes, but I don’t detect an unusual, long-running campaign by Kimmel to drag down Trump.
Given that, I think we should just chalk this up to having a little fun. Fun is okay, Philip.
PHILIP: Interesting, because according to negative-sounding snippets I’ve picked out of what you said, you think that “fun … is … underhanded and yucky.” I’ll just let your words speak for themselves.
AARON: That’s a fair characterization.