Bill Moyers gets in on the joke with two impersonators who use satire to make serious points about media consolidation, journalism, business ethics and separating fact from fiction in a world of spin.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Here with me now are two partners of Triglyceride Investments, a private equity fund that recently announced its intention of combining the assets of all the hedge funds on Wall Street in order to bring under a single canopy of ownership every media outlet in America. Their prospectus contends that the handful of big media companies that control most of what you see, hear, and read cannot possibly produce maximum return on investment as long as each has to field its own army of lobbyists in Washington.
If only one holding company instead of four or five controlled all the country’s radio and television stations and all of its cable, newspaper, and Internet outlets, eliminating the need for the competitive purchase of politicians, the savings on campaign contributions alone would increase the bottom line tenfold.
Not the least of their argument is that since our present media system and Washington so closely mirror each others’ interests, it could even be possible to close down the government altogether and have the country run by Wall Street, saving huge sums of money now spent on perpetuating an impression to the contrary. Joining me are Andy Bichlbaum, the chairman of Triglyceride Investments, and his partner, Mike Bonanno, chief executive of their offshore subsidiary, Tsetse Media Inc., with headquarters in the Marianas Islands. Welcome to the Journal.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you. Is it true that when you go public you intend to include NPR and PBS in your IPO?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yes. Absolutely.
MIKE BONANNO: We’re looking at creating entertainment that would, in a sense, read well. We’re interested in making enough money because it’s through the making of money that we can improve society.
BILL MOYERS: But you really see a silver lining in media conglomeration?
MIKE BONANNO: This is not just a silver lining. The coat is reversible. It’s literally going to be a silver jacket.
BILL MOYERS: You know a lot of us are concerned that already just a handful of big media companies have driven everything to the bottom. I mean, what makes you think one big holding company could do any better or worse?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, if you think about the bottom of the barrel metaphor, you know, everybody knows that the sweetest apples are at the bottom. And under optimal conditions, in fact, you get the weight of the top apples even creating minor lesions in the skin of the apples at the bottom and, thereby, allowing the infiltration of — of productive bacteria which can even lead to the production of brandy. And who doesn’t like brandy? If you take the apples and spread them over a field — essentially what you end up with is a bunch of rabbits with the runs. And what’s the interest of that?
MIKE BONANNO: The consolidation is going to benefit you, Bill. I mean, that’s something that you’re going to have to realize, that you, as a consumer, are going to have more channels available. We’ll have more money to create more programming that you’ll like. And it’ll serve your needs better.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Even with your reduced income.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Look, enough’s enough. I’m often telling my audience on this program that I’m not kidding when I report some absurdity but I have been kidding these past few moments. And I have to level with my audience. You’re not representatives of Triglyceride Investment. You don’t own Tsetse Media. Who are you really?
MIKE BONANNO: My name is Mike Bonanno. And we are with a group called the Yes Men.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: And I’m Andy Bichlbaum, and I really am also with the Yes Men.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, they’re the Yes Men and they serve up satirical humor laced with lunacy to call the media’s attention to serious issues. This was their subversive first film, released three years ago, followed by this book, and another film is now in the works. It all started some years ago when they set up a parody of the World Trade Organization’s website. Somebody mistook it for the real thing and they got a serious invitation to speak as experts at an international conference in Austria.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: We prepared this absurd speech talking about how we must eliminate the siesta, privatize voting and this sort of thing. And we fully expected to get kicked out or perhaps arrested. We had no idea.
BILL MOYERS: What happened?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Nothing. Nothing happened.
BILL MOYERS: They listened to you?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: They listened.
BILL MOYERS: They believed you?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: They believed us. They asked questions. And then we left. We had lunch with them afterwards-
MIKE BONANNO: That was the biggest surprise from that first experience. You know, we thought that seeing that we wanted to open a free market and democracy by allowing people that sell their votes to the highest bidder would make people angry. But it didn’t. They just accepted it. Because it kept within the logic of the thinking in that room.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean in the logic?
MIKE BONANNO: Well, I mean, they were talking about — at a conference, about international trade law and the importance of breaking down trade barriers, and the importance of free markets. And so, when we said we have a giant free market, it’s called democracy, and the only problem is that corporations can’t buy and sell votes, they said, “You’re right. Great idea. Let’s implement it. Let’s figure out how to do it.” And they just accepted it. And that’s what I mean. It stayed within that logic.
BILL MOYERS: Does this make you cynical?
MIKE BONANNO: Well.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: It makes us very worried.
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: And we hope for the people who see us doing these crazy things get worried, too. That’s why we do it.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s a case study of how they do it. Last spring the Yes Men set up another fake website called halliburtoncontracts.com. They were fishing…and they got a bite. Organizers for an insurance conference on catastrophic loss took them as representatives of the giant energy services firm and asked them to make a presentation about how to address global climate change. Mike Bonanno posed as Dr. Northrop Goody, the head of Halliburton’s emergency products development unit. Andy Bichlbaum spoke as Fred Wolf, also from Halliburton. After a short presentation of world catastrophes, they asked for volunteers from the audience to demonstrate a new product that could help prevent ill effects from climate change. They called it…survivaball. The audience bought it.
MIKE BONANNO: We want something that’s going to be able to save a human being no matter what mother nature throws at em. And so, this is the answer. And we have an artist rendition of what it might be like in Houston when we launch our SurvivaBall. They’re going to be able to go under water, rated at fifty feet. They can be used in any condition. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a landslide in California or even in the Arctic and of course any other conditions – tsunamis, or tornadoes, the SurvivaBall is designed to withstand.
BILL MOYERS: The audience believed you?
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah. Unfortunately — maybe. The audience of, you know, intelligent people accepted it and understood it to be just business as usual.
BILL MOYERS: When did they catch on?
BOTH: They didn’t
ANDY BICHLBAUM: One guy actually asked if this ball could be applied to the terrorist threat. He immediately saw that as a possibility. And afterwards, we had a conversation with the two organizers and the two guys who had been in the ball. And they suggested that perhaps we might want to make it more comfortable. And also they had a problem with the price but came to the conclusion that the people who needed it could afford it.
BILL MOYERS: What were you trying to prove to yourselves, if not to them?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: The main point of this was to drive home just how grave the situation is and who really stands to benefit from it. It’s disproportionately the poor who suffer. And the rich can always protect themselves. So this was sort of a symbol of that.
BILL MOYERS: You went to a conference in Europe and suggested that the siesta in Spain be made illegal because it interferes with work?
MIKE BONANNO: Well, that was actually about the idea of, you know, harmonization, global harmonization of business practices. There was, at the time, strangely enough — something on the Italian books to outlaw the long lunch in Italy. This was a Berlusconi idea. He thought it was great —
BILL MOYERS: The prime minister, yeah.
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah. He thought he could synchronize, you know, with the rest of Europe. And so if they just didn’t take as long a lunch in Italy things would be fine. So he outlawed it. The same thing actually happened with Fox’s government in Mexico. They outlawed the siesta in government offices during the same time. We thought we were making a really strange satire about this idea of harmonization and about people’s worry that cultural traditions were going to be ended by the policies of the WTO. And yet it turned out that these things were actually being legislated by governments around the world.
BILL MOYERS: You can’t get too absurd, can you?
MIKE BONANNO: No.
BILL MOYERS: — in this world?
MIKE BONANNO: And I think that this is really the point is that as long as we are deferring all of our responsibilities to a marketplace to make the decisions, we’re going to be in trouble. And we’re gong to keep heading down these paths that are leading us on the course toward destruction.
BILL MOYERS: Is what you do legal?
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: We think it is.
MIKE BONANNO: Absolutely. We’ve never had anybody who could tell us that it wasn’t.
BILL MOYERS: Has anybody tried to?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yes. Well about a month ago we spoke at a giant oil conference in Calgary, Alberta, as Exxon. And —
BILL MOYERS: Representing Exxon?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Representing Exxon, yeah. And we told the — it was a conference with 20,000 attendees. Our event was the keynote luncheon, which was hyped by the organizers as a very important event.
BILL MOYERS: And who invited you?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: The organizers of the conference. Oil — Go Expo it was called.
BILL MOYERS: Go Expo.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Go Expo.
BILL MOYERS: But how did you know about you?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: They — the same as anybody. They stumbled on our website and thought-
BILL MOYERS: You’re kidding. And they wrote you a letter, called you, an e-mail?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: An e-mail. Yeah,
BILL MOYERS: Don’t do they do vetting, don’t they do due diligence?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Apparently not. They send out many, many e-mails to many people, and they just sent one out to us — inviting us to come present at the conference or come have a presence there. And we said, “Great. Yeah, we’ll definitely come and we’ll do a lot for you.”
BILL MOYERS: And here’s what they did. Bichlebaum was Shepherd Wolf of the National Petroleum Council. That’s a real organization.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Without oil we would not have food. Without oil we would not be able to bring that food to our tables. Without oil at least 4 billion people would starve and even those left would have a very hard time of it. But I’m not here today to pat us all on the back. I’m here to speak of plan b’s . What we really need is something as plentiful as petroleum but much less dependent on infrastructure. Or something as useful as whales but infinitely more abundant.
BILL MOYERS: Bonanno posed as Florian Ossenberg, representing Exxon Mobil. The audience listened intently as the Yes Men outlined a new product to replace fossil fuels. They called it…Vivoleum.
BILL MOYERS: And you were describing technology rendering human flesh into this new product called Vivoleum?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Right. In a worst-case scenario, of course, climate change could lead to enormous catastrophes, which might interrupt the flow of oil, and that would be a tragedy. So we have to be ready with a new source of oil and that’s, of course, the many millions or even more people that will die. We can render them into Vivolium.
MIKE BONANNO: We handed out candles to the audience, lit candles that were in the shape of a man — and they had human hair in them, incidentally. So it smelled really bad in the room. And we showed a video of the guy who gave his life for the Vivoleum product.
CUT TO YES MEN VIDEO: Reggie was willing to make that sacrifice for the betterment of humanity; for that, we all solute him.
REGGIE: I think I’d like to be a candle ..
ANDY BICHLBAUM: And by the end of the video that they saw, they understood that they were holding a little part of that janitor. So —
BILL MOYERS: They didn’t catch on?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well — some of them did.
MIKE BONANNO: Because they started, you know, about halfway through the video when they began realizing that they were actually holding this burning man in their hands, they started trying to put it in glasses and, you know, they really didn’t want to touch it anymore. This time there were actually a few people in the audience who recognized andy because our film was on Showtime not so long ago. And they started to react. The conference organizers were kind of freaking out and trying to figure out how they could shut it down. But once something like that is rolling, too, it’s hard to stop it without some degree of embarrassment.
CUT TO YES MEN VIDEO: This was not the presentation we’d anticipated. Please enjoy the rest of your meal.
BILL MOYERS: But what I heard about that, read about it, and then watched it, I thought of that marvelous passage from the great satirist, Jonathan Swift, the English satirist — couple of centuries ago. He said, “I’ve been assured by very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled. He was, of course, trying to mock the various efforts to — deal with malnutrition at that time. And he was suggesting, you know, why don’t we eat ourselves? But England took him seriously. It was amazing.
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah. I mean, and I think that that’s the strength in it because what — what was going on at that time, of course, was the Irish potato famine*. And, you know, what the English essentially were saying to the Irish was, “Go ahead and eat your babies,” because there was enough food in Ireland, but the cash crops were still being exported to England and elsewhere. And — and that’s the crux of the issue. That’s what he was satirizing, the fact that money was dictating whether or not people got food in Ireland at that time.
*Jonathan Swift wrote, “A Modest Proposal” in 1729, and although he was commenting upon poverty and famine in Ireland, he was not referring to the Great Irish Potato Famine, which did not begin until 1845.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: You know, and in this case we just felt that absolutely compelled to — to make the audience realize what we were doing. And that’s why we had them hold this burning flesh. We thought, well, they’re not going to get away with not hearing us this way. They’re going to see it. They’re going to feel it. They’re going to smell it.
BILL MOYERS: What did you want them to think?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: We wanted them to understand what we were saying, which was that there’s something wrong with our current energy policies, which they represent. These are the foot soldiers of North American energy policy. And we wanted them to understand viscerally what we were saying, that, you know, we’re headed — we’re — this is taking us to destruction.
BILL MOYERS: Is it true that Exxon closed down your website after this?
MIKE BONANNO: They did. In fact, they nearly made a call, we don’t really know. They just called the provider from our ISP and they immediately shut it down. They shut down the site. They refused to turn it on unless we took any mention of Exxon off of our website.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: The site that they took down was called Vivoleum.com. And at the top of it, it had the Exxon logo. And underneath it said, “150,000 people are already dying from climate change every year. What a resource.” And it had a link to the World Health Organization report about that. Exxon made a threat to the Internet service provider saying this is trademark infringement, or copyright infringement. And I think in court to support that, they’d have to argue that this was credible. So —
BILL MOYERS: Credible?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: — well, that Exxon would actually have a site like this.
MIKE BONANNO: Under copyright law, the idea is that, you know, as long as you are — or, you know, you can be determined to be making parody, if a reasonable person does not believe that it’s true. Like for instance — you would — with the Jonathan Swift thing, you’d say well, would a reasonable person really think that he’s saying that people should eat babies? And, you know, if it was determined in court that a reasonable person could be fooled, then maybe it’s not, you know, parody or satire.
BILL MOYERS: But, you know, you look at it, and you can understand why a company, a corporation like Exxon, wouldn’t want an impersonator to defile their trademark.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, fortunately in this country, freedoms are still allowed to private citizens to make political statements. And it’s not a right that is only given to large corporations.
BILL MOYERS: Are you concerned about the ethical implications of what you are doing, of fooling people or making fools of people?
MIKE BONANNO: We’re much more concerned with the ethical implications of not doing it.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MIKE BONANNO: What I mean is that it seems like it’s incumbent upon us to try to do something about the really grave ethics issues in the world, the real problems, companies that will go and exploit resources that we know are going to, in the long run, kill us or many people around the world. These kinds of wrongdoings are at such a scale, they’re so vast compared to our white lies, let’s say, that we think it’s ethical. Our path is actually ethical one.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, you would not get away with this in Putin’s Russia or in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or in China today.
MIKE BONANNO: Or maybe even in France. I’m not entirely kidding. I mean, we do have really good free speech laws here. Unfortunately, there — you know, they’re kind of circumvented by other kind of loopholes. You know, we can speak at the volume of however much money you have. But, you know, we are lucky to actually be able to do these sorts of things here, although we’ve also done it in Europe. Because we do engage in this as a form of protected speech. It is satire. It is parody. It’s a way for us to speak sort of beyond the volume that we normally would be able to.
BILL MOYERS: In the real world, the Yes Men are ardent cyclists, doing their best to reduce carbon emissions. Here they’re arriving at our studios in New York before changing into their disguises as serious media moguls. In their day jobs they are engaged in corrupting the young…Mike teaches art and technology at Rensallaer Polytechnic Institutes in upstate New York, and this fall Andy begins teaching design and technology at the Parsons school of design here in the city. Their shared passion is media literacy…helping students figure out who’s telling the truth.
BILL MOYERS: BILL MOYERS: Jon Stewart said right there, and said it’s amazing to him — in effect, he said it’s amazing to him that fake news gets more attention than real news. What does that say to you?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Sad.
MIKE BONANNO: Yeah.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: It’s a sad state of affairs.
MIKE BONANNO: But we’re not making fake news. We’re making real news by — through fakery that’s real fake news. It’s like the known unknowns we’re doing that kind of a thing.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: We actually see this as a form of journalism. Or perhaps more precisely, the form of collaboration with journalists. A lot of the issues that we address journalists want to cover. And sometimes it’s the reason they’ve gone into journalism. But in many jobs, in many situations, editorial control won’t let them unless there’s a good little hook behind it. And so, we’ve found a way to create funny spectacles that give journalists the excuse to cover issues. And sometimes, they work really well.
BILL MOYERS: Sometimes when I read what you’ve done and I look at your Web site, think, “These guys are revolutionaries. Are you trying to overthrow the system?”
ANDY BICHLBAUM: We’re trying to make the system more humane.
MIKE BONANNO: I mean, the system that we’ve got has got a lot of problems. So, there may be a better system out there. Our goal is to show what’s wrong with the system in ways that we enjoy that are fun and strange and entertaining. We’re working on creating ideas for what a different system could look like, or tweaks to the current system to make it better for people.
BILL MOYERS: Mike Bonanno, Andy Bichlbaum, thanks for putting us on — I mean, thanks for being here. It was a pleasure.
MIKE BONANNO: Thank you —
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Thank you.
MIKE BONANNO: — very much, Bill.
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Thank you for putting us on, as well.
This transcript was entered on May 21, 2015.