You may have heard about the latest dustup between Jeff Jarvis, a media futurist and journalism professor, and his satirical online alter-ego, @ProfJeffJarvis, who was created several years ago by a software developer named Rurik Bradbury to mock the jargon-laden prognostications for which Jarvis and his ilk are known. The two Jarvises have butted heads in the past, but the most recent incident—in which the real Jarvis, after airing legal threats on Twitter, successfully forced Esquire to delete a satirical essay carrying @ProfJeffJarvis’s byline—shows that, for all of his bluster about the power of free speech, Jeff Jarvis is a cringing hypocrite when it comes to the offensive but entirely legal speech of others.
To catch you up: The essay under debate, which was published by Esquire on Tuesday and republished by Gawker on Wednesday, is a humorous piece about a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that soberly argued for the creation of a technocratic political party known as the Innovation Party. In one passage, @ProfJeffJarvis wrote: “Netizens will be co-opted to both fly drones over Pakistan, East Africa, and other trouble spots, and also to make the difficult call: Does this house really look like it is harboring terrorists? And should we deploy a Hellfire missile at the house or not? Cast your votes!”
Though the byline on Esquire.com read “Prof. Jeff Jarvis,” the accompanying biography explicitly stated that “Prof. Jeff Jarvis” was not, in fact, Jeff Jarvis. The author’s photo was, as it is on Twitter, a picture of an obese man wearing a Santa hat and a beer helmet. As the First Amendment lawyer Ken White explained on Wednesday, “the satirical nature [of the essay] is quite clear.”
In response, Jarvis took to Twitter, where he 1) Demanded Esquire immediately remove the entire article:
Godfuckingdamnit, Esquire. Take it down. Take. You call yourself journalists? Bullshit. Take it down.— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) April 26, 2016
2) Claimed the essay—or, at least, the use of his name for satirical purposes—was so upsetting that he feared it would cause his heart to go into atrial fibrillation (a.k.a. an irregular heartbeat):
I am so upset I am afraid I'm going to go into afib.— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) April 26, 2016
3) Began issuing barely-veiled legal threats against the magazine:
I need an attorney.— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) April 26, 2016
@JohnGHendy How dare you? This is impersonation. It is actionable. It sure as shit isn't journalism, sir.— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) April 26, 2016
After emailing the Esquire editor — at his request — and getting no response, I emailed other Hearst executives I happen know. I’m lucky enough to have the connections to make that possible; pity the poor shmuck who doesn’t have such media emails. ... In the end, I asked them to take my name off the piece entirely. If they wanted to publish it under the name of the author, that was their business and his. Then another executive entered the exchange and said: “I have asked them to take it down and I apologize for it. No excuses, it was handled poorly on our end.” And down it went.
In other words, due to his well-placed connections in the media industry, Jarvis successfully had a satirical essay deleted, in its entirety, because he deemed it “irresponsible and mean-spirited” and a “fraudulent use of [my] name.”
@ProfJeffJarvis has indeed caused several personal and professional headaches for Jeff Jarvis and his social circle, the members of which have apparently mistaken the satirical version for the real one on more than one occasion. It’s true, of course, that every public figure risks inviting this kind of treatment in the course of seeking, and gaining, the public’s attention. Still, it’s obviously not fun, and it’s probably even quite painful, to be the butt of a long-running joke in your own industry, a joke that depends on the use of your own name to make any sense.
Jarvis has argued, somewhat diplomatically, that Bradbury is free to satirize him and his work—just as long as he keeps his name out of it. “The issue was not satire but acquisition of my name [and] fooling readers of an allegedly journalistic enterprise,” he tweeted yesterday. What Jarvis misunderstands is that a satire of Jeff Jarvis inherently requires using the name of Jeff Jarvis, just as a coherent satire of Donald Trump, such as this Onion column by “Donald Trump,” requires the use of Trump’s name to have any comic effect. This tradition of humor-by-impersonation-and-exaggeration stretches back centuries, to the playwrights of Ancient Greece. And the ever-present possibility that certain people might mistake a satire for reality is the very thing that makes satire funny. As Ken White, the aforementioned First Amendment lawyer, observed, “The joke is not only at the expense of Jeff Jarvis. The joke is, in part, at the expense of people who read carelessly.”
Esquire, of all magazines, should know this. It frequently traffics in satirical articles, and was even sued a few years ago over a piece mocking the notorious birther Joseph Farah. (The magazine fought the lawsuit, and won.) So it is particularly remarkable that the magazine’s executives, in complying with Jarvis’s demands, have effectively endorsed his misunderstanding of satire. It is far more hypocritical and troubling, however, that a person of Jarvis’s position and influence would ever demand the piece’s removal in the first place.
Jarvis is a public figure who has built his reputation in part on his aggressive advocacy for journalists’ First Amendment rights, as well as his strong belief that a culture of free speech is a necessary component of any functioning political system. You can read his work on these issues on his personal blog, in various essays for The Nation and The Guardian, and in his foreword to the journalist Craig Silverman’s book, Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.*
He has explicitly argued in the past that satirical impersonation is fair game for media outlets. When a man pretending to be Arnold Schwarzenegger called into The Howard Stern Show in 2005 to discuss his plans to detonate the Moon—which fooled, among others, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough—he criticized the Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam for describing the gambit as a lie. “Lying? How about joking, Alex? Nobody was trying to lie. They were trying to tell a joke. But big, old media just didn’t get it. Maybe we need to add courses in remedial humor to journalism schools.”
When he writes about the larger issue of free speech, Jarvis’s tone often veers into the militant. Last year, after masked gunmen associated with Al-Qaeda murdered eleven staffers of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Jarvis upbraided the New York Times and other news outlets that either censored, or chose not to run at all, the cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammad that apparently inspired the attack:
I don’t buy that journalism should not offend. I don’t buy that describing [the cartoons] is sufficient. ... [I]f you’re the paper of record, if you’re the highest exemplar of American journalism, if you expect others to stand by your journalists when they are threatened, if you respect your audience to make up its own mind, then damnit stand by Charlie Hebdo and inform your public. Run the cartoons.
Later on in the same piece, Jarvis added, “First, they came for the satirists. Then they came for the journalists. Who will be left to speak for you?” And later still: “The idea that speech should be controlled to limit offense is itself offensive to the principles of a free, open, and modern society.”
The satirical cartoons to which Jarvis refers were deliberately designed to offend practicing Muslims in France, and had likely motivated the cold-blooded murder of working journalists, yet Jarvis still insisted that American news outlets, like their European counterparts, publish them anyway. Boiled down, the calculation is simple: To protect a culture of free speech, you need to actually practice free speech, even when doing so places human lives at risk. This is, to some eyes, an extremist position, but hardly an uncommon one among First Amendment fundamentalists such as Jarvis.
Which is why Jarvis’s meltdown and subsequent success in removing Bradbury’s essay is so cowardly. He is a tenured professor of journalism, a self-professed disciple of free speech, who on one hand castigates the Times for declining to publish the Charlie Hebdo Mohammad cartoons, and on the other hand refuses to tolerate the use of his own name in a work of satire aimed at his own ideas and public persona. He believes journalists should accept the risk of violence as a matter of solidarity with their own profession, but blames a satirical essay for nearly hospitalizing him. He has built a career by defending the freedom of speech when it costs him nothing to do so, but immediately denigrates the very same freedom when someone else exercises it to his disliking.
This is wrong in two ways. By his own standards, an outlet’s willingness to publish certain content in the face of outside opposition is a matter of free speech—no government was pressuring the Times not to run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And by lobbing statements that clearly suggested a personal willingness to litigate the matter, he made this incident about the First Amendment, too. When asked to explain his announcement seeking a lawyer and his subsequent use of legal terms such as “actionable” and “defamation,” Jarvis told Gawker, “I can use many words to describe what was done, some of them also used by lawyers—words including unethical, unjournalistic, defamatory, damaging. Describing is different from suing.”
It’s true that Jarvis didn’t sue Esquire. He didn’t have to. But legal threats like his launch a decision-chain in the minds of publishers and writers, a gaming out of costs and benefits that the First Amendment is designed, in certain cases, to short-circuit. Satire, including satire that invokes the identity of a non-consenting public figure, is protected by the First Amendment precisely so that publishers can make use of the form without fear of retribution. Unfortunately, some publishers view the costs of defending against quixotic nuisance actions from the likes of Jarvis as greater than the benefits of eventually winning them. And sometimes the likes of Jarvis have friends in high places.
Jarvis claims to be as concerned about the legal protection of free speech as he is about cultivating a culture hospitable to its existence. It is the job of the courts to uphold that freedom. But it is the job of journalists—and, yes, journalism professors, including Jeff Jarvis—to preserve a culture in which people are encouraged to practice it.
That Jarvis failed to do so, despite his history of posturing as a free speech warrior, is saddening but perhaps not surprising. It is far easier to defend free speech in theory, when it involves someone else, than it is to defend it in practice, when it involves you.