State Rep. Jason Spencer’s embarrassing moment in the national spotlight isn’t the first time a Georgia politician has been pranked by stunt comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.
In a segment from his new Showtime series “Who Is America?” Cohen, posing as an Israeli counter-terrorism expert, prompted Spencer to scream racist epithets and pull his pants down on camera. In the video, Spencer is told these techniques will frighten jihadis and will be useful for a training video.
Instead, these high jinks have marked a low point in Spencer’s political career. They’ve also raised awareness of Cohen’s series, in which he travels the country in various disguises, interviewing politicians and everyday people. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is also among those who were “duped.”
Twelve years ago Cohen, in his “Borat” persona (he portrayed Borat as a clumsy emigre from Eastern Europe), drew U.S. Rep. Bob Barr into a similar prank that included a so-called traditional sharing of cheese.
As Barr digs in, Cohen explains that the cheese comes from his wife’s breast.
“I thought either I misunderstood what this guy’s said, or there is something really weird about this guy,” Barr later explained, speaking to a group of students at the University of North Carolina.
“Then all of a sudden he asked me about nude male wrestling, and I said ‘That’s it. I don’t know what you’re up to.’ So we threw him out of the office.”
While producing the series, Cohen’s team approached another Georgia politician, who says he saw through the facade.
DeKalb County businessman and former state legislative candidate Paul Maner listened to Cohen’s staffer and didn’t feel good about the questions he was hearing, so he sent a volunteer to read the contract being offered.
The contract gave the production company the right to release footage even if it was of “a disparaging nature.” That struck Maner, who mounted an unsuccessful primary campaign against State Rep. Fran Millar in 2016, as a red flag, and he declined.
Maner has little praise for Cohen—but also little sympathy for Spencer.
“Certainly (the video) was an unethical thing,” he said. “But for Rep. Spencer to engage in what they were getting him to do for this, quote, video production, was over-the-top stupid.”
Maner is probably glad right now that his instincts told him to back away.
Georgia’s Republican leadership was appalled by Spencer’s performance in the Cohen production, and, in the lead-up to a critical primary, asked Spencer to step down from office.
Spencer declined. He also offered a comment to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his appearance in the cable series, which he said “exploited my state of mind for profit and notoriety.”
Cohen, who also coaxed former Vice President Dick Cheney into autographing a “waterboard kit,” promises more absurd encounters with politicians in future episodes of Showtime’s “Who Is America?”
What do we make of Cohen’s stunts? Are they unethical?
“I’m not sure what the ethics are for an entertainer who’s doing it for laughs,” said Kelly McBride, a senior vice president at The Poynter Institute and an expert in journalism ethics. “It’s not like there’s a code of ethics for moviemakers or for comedians.”
Cohen has been compared to filmmaker James O’Keefe, who targeted Planned Parenthood and ACORN, using hidden cameras and questionable editing. O’Keefe’s organization also attempted to embarrass the Washington Post by pitching a fictional story about a sex-crime victim of Alabama gubernatorial candidate Roy Moore, but the ploy was uncovered by the Post.
NPR television critic Eric Deggans makes the point that Cohen’s subjects know they’re being filmed, and they sign releases.
Veteran news broadcaster Ted Koppel, who was also taken in by Cohen, told The New York Times that, while he doesn’t approve of O’Keefe’s operations, “at least he’s doing it for an ideological end. There’s a purpose to it other than getting a few giggles.”
But University of Georgia associate professor of political science Audrey A. Haynes, who teaches courses in media and propaganda, said Cohen’s political satire isn’t just entertainment. “If he were just going for laughs, I’m not sure it would be as thought provoking as it is,” she said.
Former congressman Barr didn’t think Cohen was thought-provoking. Just creepy. But he wasn’t aware that “Borat” was actually a comedian with many television credits until he was thumbing through the channels on television one night and saw his “Kazakhstan” visitor on HBO. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’” he told UNC students.
“So you live and learn.”