When I heard that Lizz Winstead, the co-creator of the Daily Show, would appear on a blogger “snark” panel at this year’s Netroots Nation, I wondered if the group would address the elephant in the room. It had just been a little over a month since Jezebel — owned by Gawker Media, one of the most well-known purveyors of “snark” — had published a piece called “The Daily Show’s Woman Problem,” which supported the claim that Jon Stewart was sexist by using several sources that were either anonymous or who had never worked on the show. This was followed by an open letter signed by over 30 Daily Show women harshly criticizing the Jezebel piece (without naming it). Or, as Sarah Palin would say, the Daily Show writers “refudiated” Jezebel’s claims.
But the entire hour-long panel went by nary a mention of the episode — at least until the QandA period. Sady Doyle, who writes for the feminist blog Tiger Beatdown, mentioned it — seemingly apropos of nothing — when describing the most effective uses of snark:
“For me I think so much that we make fun of rests on a foundation of either intellectual dishonesty or just a profoundly strange and faulty grasp on the world,” said Doyle. “And for me whatâ€™s always funny …. is if you just actually type out what theyâ€™re actually saying, like if you remove all the politeness from it. Not to be weird around present company” — here she was referring to co-panelist Lizz Winstead — “but the Daily Showâ€™s letter from women on the staff. What was alleged was that they had two female writers, two female correspondents, and had hired a new one after a 7-year gap with no new correspondents, and they wrote this letter that was like, ‘We are not sexists. We have women. Theyâ€™re accountants, and also some of them do makeup. Like, thatâ€™s great…”
Doyle didn’t get any further before Winstead interrupted her:
“Wait, wait, wait a sec,” Winstead said. “I think there’s intellectual dishonesty with an article called ‘The Daily Show’s Woman Problem’ when nobody understands how the Daily Show is actually made. There are two women writers on the show. They rewrite submissions blind. There are no names on writing submissions to the Daily Show, because they have to pick people who are full part historians, brilliant, who pay attention to the media, and are equal parts hilarious. And people donâ€™t really quit the Daily Show that often. But there are also the field producers who work there. Like somebody slammed — and maybe it was you or someone” — here she was referring to Doyle — “who wrote a blog post saying, ‘someone is called co-executive producer, who doesnâ€™t really have a creative role in the show.’ And they were referring to someone who started out as a field producer. The field producers there write the material for the talent. But the people in the field arenâ€™t called writers, theyâ€™re called field producers. Segment producers are segment producers because they write segments. [Co-Executive Producer Kahane Cooperman] taught me how to produce in the field. Sheâ€™s a very talented person. And I get really frustrated when people claim that the Daily Show is sexist when Iâ€™ve worked with Jon Stewart on four separate projects and he is the least sexist person ever. Theyâ€™re not trying to not hire women, theyâ€™re trying to hire the best possible people for the show. You can call it a boyâ€™s club, itâ€™s not. Itâ€™s a nerd club. And I challenge anybody who has submitted to the Daily Show, who if she didnâ€™t get hired as a writer, who actually thought, ‘ok I didnâ€™t get hired on this shot. What Iâ€™m going to do is Iâ€™m going to start a blog that has a focus and tone like the Daily Show, so they can see the kind of work I do, so they can see there are women out there trying to do that.’ I havenâ€™t seen that blog. When I first launched that show, I got 150 writer submissions. Three were from women. Three, thatâ€™s it.”
I wondered if this would lead to an actual debate, but Doyle remained silent. For a moment it looked as if Amanda Marcotte, another feminist on the panel who had previously advanced the same argument as Doyle, would respond: “Itâ€™s an endemic problem,” she began. “I certainly think that the intentions… we should not get into all that. Does anyone else have any questions from the audience?”
To be honest, after watching everyone on the panel pat themselves on the back about how funny they were and how their snark was saving democracy, I wish a debate had broken out. Yes, most of the panelists were funny — two of them write for Sadly, No!, one of my favorite blogs that has actually made me laugh out loud at times — but here was an instance where we could have viewed the other side of snark: The target. Several audience members tried to address this during the QandA by bringing up the negative aspects of a snark-riddled web — the harassment, the potential for unfounded cruelty — but the panelists seemed to brush it aside without giving it serious thought. And here we had someone insinuating Jon Stewart was sexist (Doyle) and one of Stewart’s good friends (Winstead) a few feet away.
Shortly after the Jezebel/Daily Show fiasco, Emily Gould wrote a piece in Slate accusing feminist blogs of using snark-filled faux outrage to “gin up pageviews.” I was reminded of this earlier in the panel when Doyle weighed the use of snark versus more serious discussion:
“Iâ€™ve had this happen around the time of the Daily Show controversy,” she said. “I wrote this really snarky post and I got like 20 comments about what an irresponsible dick I was and 80 more comments about how I was funny and great. And then I wrote a more serious post, and the comments were like â€˜I agree with you, thanks for spelling out your ideas so clearly.â€™ But there were way fewer comments.”
Way fewer comments on a post that was serious and substantive? The horror.