A woman reporter interviews President Donald Trump’s lawyer in the living room of a hotel suite. When her questions have been answered, they move into the bedroom. Unaware of hidden cameras, the lawyer is lying on the bed—with his hand apparently inside his pants—when the reporter’s colleague bursts in to stop the encounter.
“Who is this guy?” exclaims the lawyer and former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani (who insists that, at the time, he was tucking in his shirt). Everyone but Giuliani knows that answer already. “This guy” is Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the newly-released Borat Subsequent Moviefilm—and the TV reporter is actually his co-star, Maria Bakalova, an actress.
The real question is: What is Cohen doing?
His bizarre scene with the president’s attorney has become part of the national narrative in the final days of the U.S. election. By using fictional characters to go undercover with Giuliani, QAnon believers, and other real-life drivers of the U.S. culture wars, is Cohen practicing comedy…or journalism?
John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern, says Cohen has created his own category. “It’s tough to invent a new term for him, but I think he’s a ‘newsworthiness entrepreneur,’” Wihbey says of Cohen. “He understands that getting people like Rudy Giuliani in absurd, disgusting, compromising situations is going to be massively newsworthy. And so he’s different from other satirical news producers and artists.”