Sarah Sands: Revered, powerful, serious - so thrillingly ripe for ridicule

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A criticism made of Sacha Baron Cohen is that he picks easy targets. It is not hard to portray American rednecks or Austrians in an unflattering light, although it is fiendishly difficult to create characters of comic genius, such as Ali G and Bruno.

What takes even greater nerve is to ridicule those whom you and your peers revere and look to for career promotion. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the best current affairs show on TV, recently sent a reporter to The New York Times to interview its executive editor Bill Keller.

How can I begin to describe the erudite dignity of Keller? He is more a symbol of journalistic seriousness than a mortal. I know his foxy English wife, Emma, and have tip-toed into their high-ceilinged New York apartment to gossip over a bottle of Chardonnay with her, while her husband, observed through the crack in the door, cinematically discussed global affairs on the phone.

No one reveres The New York Times more than the people who work there. I mentioned The Daily Show satirical assault to the British husband of an NYT reporter and he wondered how his wife would survive it.

Look up the clip on the internet: the Daily Show reporter introduces the audience to a quaint museum exhibit: "They are still making paper newspapers today!" He wanders through the newsroom with a woman from management, stopping to laugh out loud at a phone on the desk: "What's this? A landline! Hello, I'm a reporter from the Eighties."

He asks "Ol' man Keller, the last of a dying breed" why he has lost all the newspaper's revenues to Craigslist, and ponders with the managing editor the preposterous hilarity of printing news "24 hours after it has happened".

Keller's submits to the crass truths of the TV man with an intensive-care smile, while the managing editor's face freezes as he realises he is on the wrong end of a terrible joke.

I was both appalled and thrilled watching the film. Here was a great man, defending the high end of my own profession against a grinning jackanapes. But I also loved the spirit of Aristophanes.

It was the old and the new. If The New York Times is one of the last great newspaper ships afloat, it is surrounded by new media pirates on jet skis. These are reckless and fun, and refuse to acknowledge their fuel dependence on the big old boat.

As The New York Times mustered its response to The Daily Show, it played to its strengths. It pointed out that it had a highly resourced website of its own. It observed that it was still a prime source of journalistic material. And it lightly threatened retribution on the careers of the TV funny man and his wife.

I could never be as bold and funny as the Daily Show reporter, but I have in the past played pranks on fine establishment figures such as Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan and Max Hastings. I have hugged myself with glee, even as I heard the planes overhead lining up terrible retribution. The great have no need of humour, particularly about themselves.

The joke works only if they do have power, when mischief is an act of lese- majesty. Happily the NYT still has – at least for now. If the bloggers imagine they can dance on the graves of newspaper reporters, they should think again.

Bill Keller has flown to Iran to make sense of the story. The bloggers had the instant drama, but newspapers can tell you what it means.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

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