A woman reporter interviews President Donald Trump’s lawyer in the living room of a hotel suite. When her questions have been answered, they move into the bedroom. Unaware of hidden cameras, the lawyer is lying on the bed—with his hand apparently inside his pants—when the reporter’s colleague bursts in to stop the encounter.
“Who is this guy?” exclaims the lawyer and former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani (who insists that, at the time, he was tucking in his shirt).
Everyone but Giuliani knows that answer already. “This guy” is Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the newly-released Borat Subsequent Moviefilm—and the TV reporter is actually his co-star, Maria Bakalova, an actress.
The real question is: What is Cohen doing?
His bizarre scene with the president’s attorney has become part of the national narrative in the final days of the U.S. election. By using fictional characters to go undercover with Giuliani, QAnon believers, and other real-life drivers of the U.S. culture wars, is Cohen practicing comedy…or journalism?
John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern, says Cohen has created his own category.
“It’s tough to invent a new term for him, but I think he’s a ‘newsworthiness entrepreneur,’” Wihbey says of Cohen. “He understands that getting people like Rudy Giuliani in absurd, disgusting, compromising situations is going to be massively newsworthy. And so he’s different from other satirical news producers and artists.”
Wihbey views Borat, a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, as the descendant of a line of satirists who have been blending news and entertainment for decades. In “Weekend Update,” a 46-year fixture of Saturday Night Live, comedians riff on news reports from an anchor desk. In Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, longtime host Jon Stewart sent comedians out into the field, where they acted like journalists without hiding their identities or intentions. The Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee went on to start their own news-based comedy shows; Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show when Stewart departed in 2015.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 12 percent of online Americans in 2014 cited The Daily Show as a source of news, which was equivalent to the influence of traditional news outlets like USA Today (12 percent) and The Huffington Post (13 percent).
“Jon Stewart’s show was the reassertion of the satirical news trend, but it can really be traced back to the political cartoons on the editorial pages of newspapers,” says Wihbey, author of The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World. “There is a long tradition in the news media of mocking politicians, so there is some continuity between what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing and certain elements of political satire in journalism that goes back a while. But I do think because [Cohen] is forcing newsworthy events to happen, and calling attention to them in this really entrepreneurial way, he’s at a whole different level.”
Borat also connects with the dramatic practice of muckraking journalists and organizations who go undercover to conduct sting operations. Project Veritas, a group of right-wing activists known for secretly recording videos of Planned Parenthood workers and Washington Post reporters, has been accused of editing its footage to show its subjects in a negative light. (Giuliani likewise complains that his Borat scene was edited out of context to make his behavior look inappropriate.)
But Project Veritas doesn’t have the backing—or the reach—of the mainstream entertainment industry. Though Amazon has not released its audience numbers, an estimated 1.6 million U.S. households watched Cohen’s film online via Amazon Prime Video within four days of its Oct. 22 release, according to Samba TV, an analytics firm.
Cohen’s film is entertainment in which fictional characters intersect with real people in real-life situations. Each scene has been edited to meet the priority of entertaining large audiences. Borat is no journalist, says Wihbey, and yet his undercover work has created news that may be influencing Americans during the election.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, the news business has always had strong entertainment dimensions to it,” Wihbey says. “‘How do you get attention?’ is part of the art of what we do in journalism. I’m open to seeing news and media as a big, unpredictable, and often evolving ecosystem.”