Not So Punny

Why the humor in TV's coverage of the shoe-throwing incident?

So, as I’m sure you’ve heard: This weekend, while President Bush and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki gave a joint press conference during the American president’s surprise trip to Baghdad, an Iraqi journalist rose to his feet during the proceedings and declared, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!”

The journalist then hurled his shoe at the American president. Bush ducked. The journalist then hurled the other.

Well. How’s a fun-loving media to narrate this series of unfortunate events? Why, with puns! “Shoe-icide Attack”! “Lame Duck”! “Bush doesn’t admit Iraq’s angry soles”!

Now, granted, under normal circumstances, the whole shoe-hurled-at-a-world-leader thing would indeed be pretty amusing. But “normal,” meaning “not currently engaged in an occupation that has led to the brutal deaths of an untold number of people.” The U.S. president visiting Iraq, nearly six years after the U.S. invasion, is not normal circumstances.

The shoe-throwing incident—”soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture,” AFP noted—isn’t funny so much as it’s incredibly sad. Sad that this is what the Iraqi/American relationship has come to; sad that the offending journalist, Muntadar al-Zaidi, was taken outside the conference hall and beaten for his stunt until “he was crying like a woman.” Sad all around. And, in that, perhaps, a fitting symbol for President Bush’s ostensibly final diplomatic trip to Iraq, a reminder that, whatever the White House claims about the matter, the wounds we’ll be leaving in Iraq are deep and raw and personal.

The major papers get it. Their stories about the shoe-throwing today frame the incident in the broader context—and the broader ironies—of Bush’s oddly triumphal visit to Iraq. Here’s the lede of today’s New York Times print story on the incident:

President Bush made a valedictory visit on Sunday to Iraq, the country that will largely define his legacy, but the trip will more likely be remembered for the unscripted moment when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Mr. Bush’s head and denounced him on live television as a “dog” who had delivered death and sorrow here from nearly six years of war.

And the lede of today’s front-page Washington Post treatment:

Arriving here on Sunday for a surprise farewell visit, President Bush staunchly defended a war that has taken far more time, money and lives than anticipated, but he received a taste of local resentment toward his policies when an Iraqi journalist hurled two shoes at him at a news conference.

Good summaries, both. Each captures the irony of the shoe-throwing situation in a way that’s appropriately somber (read: blissfully free of puns and jokes and all manner of glee).

And then…there’s TV news. The major cable networks, in discussing the shoe-throwing, generally managed to convey not the sad ironies of the event, but rather the notion that shoes are funny and throwing them is funny and throwing them at someone is, you know, really funny. To wit, some of the teehee treatments of the shoe incident said networks treated us to this morning:

“The shoe wasn’t on the other foot; it was actually in the air. What President Bush is saying about a bizarre shoe hurling incident at a news conference in Iraq.” (teaser, Headline News)

“Every time I see it I bust out laughing. I don’t mean to. It could have been a very serious security situation. We saw what happened afterwards.” (Heidi Collins, CNN)

“President Bush joked he is used to dodging reporters’ questions, but in Iraq this weekend he was dodging shoes. You’ve probably seen the video now. Tamron Hall with more on what the president calls a ‘bizarre incident.’” (teaser, MSNBC)

Even the non-cable news programs found delight in the shoe-throwing situation. Here’s CBS’s Early Show:

HARRY SMITH: So the tabloids in New York are having a field day with the shoe attack on President Bush in Iraq. The Daily News calls it a ‘Shoe-icide Attack.’ And then the Post calls it ‘Lame Duck,’ as in duck—

MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: Duck! Oh, good one.

JULIE CHEN: Well, his duck was pretty good.

SMITH: Yeah.

CHEN: I mean, it was, you know, thinking fast.


SMITH: Listen, I’ve been in the Green Zone in Baghdad and this is—it may be the most secure place on the planet, so nobody is going to be in there with any kind of a weapon. I mean, look at the president’s face, look at the look on his face.

CHEN: He didn’t look nervous at all.

SMITH: He’s amused almost by this.

CHEN: He looked more embarrassed. I mean, he turned a little bit beet red afterwards.

SMITH: Look at this, look at him.

CHEN: And he did kind of shoo off the Secret Service agent who came up—

RODRIGUEZ: No pun intended!

CHEN: —like, ‘I’m okay’ — [Laughter] I didn’t mean that! Hey, I’m wittier than I think this morning! So, there you go.

Now, sure, the conversational format of much of TV news makes the kind of in-depth analysis we see (and expect) from print coverage difficult. But “conversational” need not mean “inane.” There’s no reason that the tones of the papers’ coverage and their on-air counterparts need be so wildly divergent. Put in less kind terms, there’s no reason that the TV coverage’s treatment needs to be so ridiculously lacking in context or intelligent analysis—or, for that matter, that on-air treatments of the incident need to be little more than audio-visual versions of tabloid schlock. There’s no reason for it—and yet, as someone who’d surely be disappointed in today’s punny treatments used to say, that’s the way it is.

To that end, I leave the final word to our friends at Fox & Friends, who conducted the following unfortunate exchange this morning, as a chyron blaring “SIZE TEN ATTACK: PRES BUSH DODGES FLYING SHOE IN IRAQ”—and another one declaring “DUCK & COVER”—flashed beneath them:

GRETCHEN CARLSON: The president had a great line saying that this is the sign of a free society. I think we are missing that in the whole discussion. If Iraq was not a free society you wouldn’t be able to throw your shoes at anyone. Which I think is a great point.

STEVE DOOCY: Reagan just pretended he couldn’t hear the shoe coming at him. Bush also said, “It’s like having a political rally and have people yell at you. It’s like driving down the street and having people not gesture can all five fingers. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it.”

CARLSON: Fingers don’t usually kill when they are from afar.

BRIAN KILMEADE: I often hearken back to Austin Powers and you think about the first time the shoe was used as a weapon.

DOOCY: Are you suggesting the guy may have stolen the idea from Austin Powers?

KILMEADE: You make the call.

[VIDEO CLIP from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, in which agent Random Task flings a shoe at Austin Powers.

POWERS: Oh, that really hurt. I’m going to have a lump there, you idiot. Who throws a shoe? Honestly.]

KILMEADE: It’s true. Who throws a shoe?

DOOCY: Who does? That guy.

“By the way, you are welcome,” Doocy added.

“I know what you’re saying,” Kilmeade replied. “Have an invasion and free these people from the worst dictator since Hitler. That’s what you get. Sit down and go wear sneakers next time.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.