Yes Men Film Analysis
May 21, 2017
In his commentary of The Yes Men Fix the World, Reuben Stern poses many ethical questions. “First” he asks, “is the Yes Men’s use of deception to raise awareness of larger civic issues justifiable” (p. 311)? Surely the Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) “feel that their impersonation of legitimate public relations professionals is an appropriate response to, and means of addressing, the ethical lapses they see in the corporate world,” as they quickly explain their ruses when discovered (Strauss, p. 544). However, ethical communicators are encouraged not to “represent yourself as informed or as an ‘expert’ on a subject when you are not,” which is exactly what the Yes Men do (Johannesen, p. 31). Equally important is the ethical directive not to deceive by “concealing the group you represent, or by concealing your position as an advocate of a viewpoint,” (p. 31) a central tenant of all their civic awareness stunts.
Even when the Yes Men admit their deceit, explaining that the ends justify their means, the film presents no evidence to support that stance. While the residents of Bhopal and New Orleans respond on camera by agreeing the “Yes Men’s prank might actually put that [corporate] inaction into public consciousness after years of neglect,” there is no proof of long-term impact of the Yes Men’s antics (Lerner, p. 2). Therefore, none of their knowingly unethical actions were justifiable.
Stern then asks, “What about forcing the involvement of a crowd of unsuspecting onlookers? For example, is public awareness of global warming worth the distress caused to the audience members who believed they were holding candles made from human remains” (p. 311)? The Yes Men would not likely have achieved notoriety without involving unsuspecting people, which makes their actions increasingly unethical and unjustifiable. The global warming candle hoax was “absolutely absurd” in nature and scope, “though what is more astonishing is the seriousness with which the people who are being mocked believe these hoaxes” (Barr, p. 483).
Here the Yes Men seemingly abandon logic and “thoughtful and caring judgment” essential to responsible communication, plunging into pure emotional, visceral appeals (Johannesen, p. 8). Their involvement of non-consenting onlookers is unethical as they “short-circuit human logical reasoning processes,” and unjustifiable as no end was achieved (p. 26).
Stern continues with “What duty does a reporter have with regard to verifying the credibility of sources, and to what extent do reporters in practice live up to that duty” (p. 311)? The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics clearly states: “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources” (SPJ Code of Ethics). All sources should be verified before using them in a piece, a feat which is rarely difficult in this age of technology. The reporter at the post-Katrina development conference is an excellent example of this; he’s shown making phone calls and asking the Yes Men details such as “Where’s your office?” to verify their authenticity.
However, the BBC failed in vetting Andy Bichlbaum’s fake Dow persona as a source in the Bhopal piece, but it seemed from the footage in The Yes Men Fix the World that they were initially contacted by a booking agent or secretary, then met on location by a production crew, and spoke with a journalist only when live on air. This does seem like a failure on the part of the overall BBC organization, but outside journalists quickly that Bichlbaum’s Dow character was not a credible source.
Then, Stern follows up with: “Even if a person appears to be legitimate, what is the appropriate level of skepticism with which a reporter should treat claims made by a seemingly official source, particularly during a live interview” (p.311)? A professional broadcast journalist should be confident that once a person is live on air, they have been vetted by the appropriate authorities and found to be legitimate. There is a tremendous amount of pressure during live broadcast to ensure that everything goes according to plan and schedule, though an ethical journalist will “gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story” (SPJ Code of Ethics). This includes the responsibility on the on-air talent to ask background questions or divert the interview, and of the producers to pull the interview if there is any doubt, as “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” (SPJ).
Furthermore, Stern asks “What responsibility do news organizations have to admit it when they have been duped” (p. 311)? News media organization have the utmost responsibility to be both accountable and transparent. The Society of Professional Journalists explains that “ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public,” including acknowledging and correcting mistakes “promptly and prominently” (SPJ Code of Ethics).
The BBC did acknowledge their mistake and invited Bichlbaum, this time as himself, back on air to explain his antics, which helped to “encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content” (SPJ Code of Ethics). In each case presented within the film, their “fraud is soon uncovered, and the Yes Men are confronted by a hostile media that questions whether these activists have caused more pain by raising hopes that are dashed within hours,” which is a worthy and ethical follow-up question from a news organization that unwittingly broadcast false information (Lerner, p. 2).
Stern follows by querying, “On a larger scale, to what extent is a news organization serving the public good by reporting on stunts such as these, which are clearly staged to get a specific activist message out to a wide audience” (p.311)? Minimizing harm is a central tenant of ethical journalism. News organizations should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” while still covering any news-worthy antics of the Yes Men or similar groups.
Journalists should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage,” including people involved with the corporations that the Yes Men impersonate (SPJ Code of Ethics). This involves avoidance of “pandering to lurid curiosity,” which in this case helps journalists distance themselves from the Yes Men’s fraudulent activities. While their unethical are often worth media coverage, news organizations best serve the public good by focusing on the issues behind the Yes Men’s activism and informing viewers on how to prevent being the target of similar acts.
Stern then counters himself by asking “On the other hand, is it a failure of the mainstream news media to cover underlying environmental or economic themes that justifies the behavior of the Yes Men” (p. 311)? This paper has concluded that the Yes Men are not justified in their behavior. Whether the mainstream media is justified in failing to cover issues that the Yes Men bring to light goes beyond ethics, to the constant need to triage what is most timely and newsworthy.
Journalists have a “special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government,” and are kept busy doing so (SPJ Code of Ethics). The BBC ran Bichlbaum’s original fake Dow interview during a piece on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, as the time was right to do so. Other ongoing issues may not receive continued coverage because they take lower precedence to currently breaking news.
“Finally,” Stern asks, “on a more esoteric note, since this film was directed by the central activist characters, is it truly a documentary? Or is it a piece of strategic communication / persuasion? Or is it another permutation of candid-camera reality television? Why might that distinction matter” (p. 311)? According to Merriam-Webster, “documentary” is defined as “a presentation (such as a film or novel) expressing or dealing with factual events;” The Yes Men Fix the World fits that requirement.
The film falls into the category of advocacy or persuasive documentary, as Bichlbaum says “The intention at the end of the film was to say, ‘get together, do something, change the world, fight, figure it out’… and kind of throw it back on the viewer” (Lerner, p. 3). Since the Yes Men aim to change the viewer’s mind about activism rather than purely educate, the film is clearly persuasive. Typically, reality television is predicated on placing people in contrived situations to see how they interact. Since this film was directed by its main characters, the reality TV moniker does not fit.
The distinction between which type of documentary The Yes Men Fix the World falls under is important because it calls upon a responsible communicator exercising “thoughtful and caring judgment” (Johannesen, p.8). All communicators should be “held accountable as evaluated by agreed-upon standards,” which includes the sender identifying their intention to the receiver (p. 8). When viewers expect objective statements and instead find “intentional use of ethically questionable tactics,” that will often bring their “harshest condemnation” (p. 9). Just as the Yes Men deceive “both government officials and stockholders to recognize the greater good that their optimistic hoaxes would achieve,” so too do they deceive viewers who expect a factual documentary rather than an advocacy film (Barr, 483).
Barr, M. (2010). A Review of “The Yes Men Fix the World.” Peace Review, 22, 482-484. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2010.524590
Documentary. (2017, May 20). In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/documentary
Johannesen, R. L. (2002). Ethical Responsibility in Human Communication(5th ed.). Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.
Lerner, M. (2009). The Yes Men Fix the World. Tikkun, 24(6), 15-79.
SPJ Code of Ethics | Society of Professional Journalists. (2017, May 20). Retrieved from https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
Stern, R. (2009). The yes men fix the world. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 24(4), 310-311.
Strauss, J. R. (2011). Public (relations) disturbances and civil disobedience: Why I use “The Yes Men Fix the World” to teach public relations ethics. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 544-547. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.009