May 03, 2006

Stephen Colbert crashes the party

Some of you may have heard of Stephen Colbert's speech at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner on Saturday, April 29, 2006. This is the annual occasion where the President and other members of his administration and the journalists who cover them plus assorted celebrities get together for an evening of schmoozing, eating, and drinking.

(See here for a report on the dinner. You can see Colbert's full speech here or here. Or, if you prefer, you can read the transcript.)

This occasion serves to reinforce a peculiar myth (reinforced by the media) about the way that journalism works in Washington. We (i.e., the outsiders) are expected to believe that there is an antagonistic, even hostile, relationship between the administration and journalists and this dinner is the one occasion in the year when they can laugh at themselves and each other, to show that they are all good sports and there are no hard feelings.

The reality is that there is an extremely cozy and almost incestuous relationship among four groups of people in Washington: the administration, congress, lobbyists, and the journalists who cover them and who are supposedly acting on our behalf. Peel back the covers and you find that there is a dense tangle of personal, professional, and financial relationships that bind them all together. They go to one another's parties, vacation in the same places, live in the same neighborhoods, move among the same group of friends, marry and have romances with each other. They all are upper-middle class or wealthy people who share the same concerns and values and class interests. They have little connection or identification with the lives of the 99% of people who are outside that circle.

Understanding this explains a lot about the way that the media performs. Even a fairly casual observer can see that in so-called press conferences or news shows, the journalists rarely ask the kinds of questions of powerful people that might elicit useful information. They also have the same people over and over again on these programs. In general the journalists are extremely deferential to those in power. Partly this is because modern-day journalists tend to focus more on access journalism (where you use prominent people as sources) rather than the slower, more expensive, and time-consuming investigative journalism (where you dig up records, closely examine documents, follow paper and money trails, examine history, etc.).

Access journalism requires you to keep on the good side of those from whom you seek information or exclusive interviews, and thus you are completely at their mercy. If Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press were to really grill Bush or Cheney on his show about all their lies, his access to administration officials and their sympathizers would disappear overnight.

This is why journalists love fairly trivial disagreements between administration members, like the current disagreement between Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice about whether Powell argued for more troops in Iraq. This enables the journalists to play the role of tough reporter while essentially engaging in trivial 'gotcha' games, and thus mask the underlying coziness that prevails. (See my two earlier posts on The Questions Not Asked here and here.)

The bonhomie so apparent at the annual White House correspondents dinner is not a break from an otherwise hostile relationship. It reveals the normal state of affairs. The only thing that is different about it is that we, the outsiders, for once get to see what actually goes on all the time.

It took a comedian, Stephen Colbert (host of the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report), to shatter this facade. For those not aware of his show, his character is a parody of Bill O'Reilly: loud, pompous, overbearing, patronizing, and grandstanding. Colbert was completely in character at the dinner and gave a biting, satirical, and funny speech that hit all the points that journalists avoid because it might ruffle the feathers of the President and his people and prevent them from getting future interviews. Colbert provided a non-stop litany of backhanded compliments to Bush and backhanded praise to the assembled media. In one brilliant stroke he took the trademark sycophancy that the media displays towards the powerful, and by carrying it to the extreme managed to simultaneously skewer both the media and the president. This was extremely skilful satire, not the kind that brings loud guffaws but evokes instead an internal 'yes!' because someone is at last saying what many of us want to say but do not have the opportunity.

He effectively said to the president seated just two places away what the administration should hear (but never does) from journalists. And to the journalists in the audience he charged them with ignoring the big questions. "Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew." And he urged them to "Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!"

The nervous laughter mixed with stunned silence of the assembled journalists, and the strained expressions of George and Laura Bush give a good indication of how much his jokes touched a nerve. These pampered people never hear people tell such things to their faces. Those who disliked Colbert's message took the lack of uproarious laughter as a sign that Colbert's act had "bombed." They are missing the point. The people at the dinner were not his intended audience. They were his target. We, the people who live outside that privileged bubble, were the audience.

As blogger Billmon points out:

Colbert used satire the way it's used in more openly authoritarian societies: as a political weapon, a device for raising issues that can't be addressed directly. He dragged out all the unmentionables -- the Iraq lies, the secret prisons, the illegal spying, the neutered stupidity of the lapdog press -- and made it pretty clear that he wasn't really laughing at them, much less with them. It may have been comedy, but it also sounded like a bill of indictment, and everybody understood the charges.

As you can imagine, the press would not take kindly to having their inadequacies openly derided. (See here for a round up of the media reaction.) Clearly Colbert does not care if he is never invited again to this kind of event again, and it is very likely that he will not. But his career does not depend on currying favor with politicians in order to get a crumb or two from them in return. So oddly enough, it took a comedian to act like a real journalist. It is for this same reason that Jon Stewart's The Daily Show is so successful. Neither Colbert nor Stewart really need to be pals with the pols in order to do their jobs. (See Stewart's and Colbert's post-mortem of the evening here.)

James Wolcott sums things up in his own review of the Colbert speech:

Colbert was cool, methodical, and mercilessly ironic, not getting rattled when the audience quieted with discomfort (and resorting to self-deprecating "savers," as most comedians do), but closing in on the kill, as unsparing of the press as he was of the president. . .The we-are-not-amused smile Laura Bush gave him when he left the podium was a priceless tribute to the displeasure he incurred. To me, Colbert looked very relaxed after the Bushes left the room and he greeted audience members, signed autographs. And why wouldn't he be? He achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve, delivered the message he intended to deliver. Mission accomplished.

I have always felt that there should be no social relationships like between journalist and the people they cover. The proper role of journalists is to keep their distance from politicians, lobbyists, and other powerful people. I am in total agreement with that great journalist I. F. Stone, who wrote:

It's just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, 'Izzy, why don't you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.' Well, you know, you're not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won't pay any attention to you anyway. He'll hold your hand, he'll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you're brighter than anybody else is -- or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they've got you!

Colbert, like Stone, will be treated as a pariah, both by the administration and by the beltway journalists. He should regard that as a high honor.

POST SCRIPT: The case for seat belts

In case you are ever tempted to drive without putting on a seat belt, take a look at this video that shows what happened to someone who was not wearing one, fell asleep at the wheel, and was involved in an accident. (For the squeamish: It is startling but NOT gruesome.)


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That's a nice analysis of Colbert's speech. You know, in a way I think this kind of skewering wouldn't have worked five or ten years ago, because without cheap broadband internet I'm not sure we ever would have heard about it. The NYT's first published piece on the dinner didn't even mention that Colbert was there at all! Instead it focused on the Bush impersonator who came before him. However, they did run a piece on Colbert's speech today, here. My guess is that they tried to brush the embarrassing speech under the rug, but then realized that this was impossible, that people knew about it anyway because of the internet, and that their very obvious failure to cover it made them look bad. But even still, today's piece does not mention the skewering that Colbert gave to the press -- only the "Bush bashing" -- and downplays as paranoid the murmurs from the blogosphere that maybe the silence was on purpose. Very interesting.

Posted by Erin on May 3, 2006 10:26 AM

It does not surprise me that NYT's Elizabeth Bumiller did not want to write about Colbert inher initial report on the dinner. She is a long-time practitioner of the kissy-face journalism that Colbert skewered.

And you are abolutely right about the way the internet has changed what we know about. I do not have cable so get neither C-Span not Comedy Central but I knew about and saw his speech in its entirety the very next day. In the old days, his speech would have disappeared without a trace.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 3, 2006 10:45 AM

Some people might think Colbert's speech was funny, and it might have been, if not for two things. First, he's right. It's sad and upsetting when someone is right about this stuff, not funny. And second, knowing it was a speech where he was directly attacking all the people he was talking to is sort of uncomfortable. We don't agree with these people, but there's sort of a human empathy for the weirdness of the situation. The lack of laughter, I think, can be attributed to these things as well.

Posted by Shruti on May 3, 2006 11:29 AM

Bush Mocked by Colbert. Carrot Top Attacked in Retaliation

Bush aides, "We are fighting Carrot Top in Vegas so we don't have to fight Colbert in New York."

Washington D.C.--Several aides close to the president have revealed that the secret service police force have been dispatched to the Vegas home of the comedian Carrot Top to deal with the grave and gathering treat of program related comedy material. "Look, Carrot Top is the real threat. It is a well known fact that Stephen Colbert met with Carrot Top several times in a gym in Vegas to exchange material or "chunks" and "bits" for Colbert's devastating appearance in D.C. two nights ago." said an unindicted White House senior staff member who demanded anonymity.

Sec. Def. Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying. "Did I like Colbert's routine? No. Do I think he had the right to say it? You bet. Will I allow others to mock the president? Not on your life!" The Sec. Def. went on to say, "Bibbity Bobbity Boo. Carrot Top is Magica Boola and must be dealt with."

Condoleeza Rice, Sec. State, supported the SS police's attack. "No one could have anticipated Colbert's remarks. He has never attacked the president before. We didn't even know he was against the President until last night. Carrot Top on the other hand has long been known for his biting political satire and his explosive colored hair in the shape of a cloud."

Heard by NSA agents over a VPN line was CTU agent Jack Bauer in an undisclosed location in LA,, "We have to find Carrot Top. NOW. There is NO TIME. He has deadly words and I've promised the President I WILL DEAL WITH IT. We can't wait until he unleashes his routine. THERE IS NO TIME." He then asked Chloe O'Brien to hack into Carrot Top's comedy routine.

When reached for comment at his undisclosed location (12498 Carlyle Street, Tysons Corner VA, between Main and Center street second door up from the red house) Vice President Cheney said, "Grrr. Arrrgh."

Karl Rove, President Bush's most trusted adviser said totally off the record on double secret background, "Homo's adopting babies. Wetbacks taking your jobs. Iran's got The Bomb and will Nuke Israel. Hillary Clinton? Lesbo. Colbert? Pedo. Carrot Top? Buff. Hung."

--Reporting from Washington, Karen Ryan

Carrot Top moments after SS attack in Vegas.

--Hat tip to Sharoneym for the original idea.

Spocko, author of Spocko's Brain. The Blog that is sweeping the nation! Now with 21 readers!

Posted by spocko on May 3, 2006 01:24 PM


I'm listening to Colbert's speech right now. That would have been so painful to watch, but man, it is funny now.

"And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Posted by Liz V on May 3, 2006 03:43 PM

An example of the transformation between investigative journalism and access journalism is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Woodward made his reputation by being the reporter that uncovered the Watergate burglary and exposed the Nixon Administration's involvement in that sordid little affair. In his latest books on the Bush Administration, however, Woodward shows off his access to the highest levels of the Executive Branch and hints at his knowing of classified data as a status symbol within his profession.

There are definitely points to be made as to why access journalism is more common (the expense is a huge issue now as mass media is a very lucrative business, reporters like being part of the social scene, reporters don't terribly want to do all the drudge work of investigation, and so on), but the rise of the Internet is causing another reporting revolution similar to how the rise of mass media did fifty years ago.

Posted by Rian on May 4, 2006 07:51 PM

Pure speculation here, but I can easily imagine that the pressure toward access journalism happens on more than an individual level: the administration can tell journalists' employers to keep the employees in check, or access will be withheld for all employees. In that situation, even a journalist willing to be critical and do the hard investigative work will have a hard time keeping a job at the same institution with access journalists.

Posted by Paul Jarc on May 5, 2006 04:37 PM

I agree with paul and i would bet hard cash that it is on an adminstration level. Money and friends in high places can do alot of things if you have enough of it.

Posted by jake on May 13, 2006 05:15 AM