Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert shook things up at the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner on April 29. In the right-wing, Bill O’Reilly-like persona made famous on his Colbert Report, Colbert skewered George W. Bush and the press, ironically congratulating journalists for giving cover to Bush on tax cuts, WMD and global warming, and chiding them for exposing secret CIA prisons and warrantless domestic spying. Colbert offered this advice to Beltway journalists:
Here's how it works: The president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. 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!
At first, the performance went largely unnoted by journalists. The initial New York Times report (5/1/06), two days after the event, didn’t even mention Colbert. Instead, Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller spent 900 words marveling at the comedic performance turned in by George W. Bush, who did a double act with a presidential impersonator. A May 2 Washington Post account similarly touted Bush’s comedy routine while dismissing Colbert’s: “Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's cutting satire fell flat,” explained the Post’s "Reliable Source" column, “because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.”
Audience members made similar complaints to Editor & Publisher (4/29/06), the online trade magazine: "Several said previous hosts, like Jay Leno, equally slammed both the White House and the press corps. 'This was anti-Bush,' said one attendee. 'Usually they go back and forth between us and him.'” Of course, Colbert's jokes did target the press corps repeatedly--but rather than going "back and forth," he treated journalists and politicians as being basically on the same side.
When video of Colbert's act became the talk of various blogs and websites--one site, YouTube.com, reported 2.7 million viewers in a 48-hour period (New York Times, 5/8/06)--more journalists began to take notice. As usual, journalists were not exactly thrilled to have to return to a subject that they had previously decided was not newsworthy; as Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz put it (5/8/06), "Many liberal bloggers were quick to denounce the mainstream media for not showering the Comedy Central host with publicity and praise."
The consensus of the mainstream media, when they finally got around to talking about it, was that Colbert's act was inappropriate, too tough on Bush and just not funny. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (5/4/06) awkwardly described himself as “a funny guy” before pronouncing Colbert’s performance unfunny: “Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude,” not to mention "a bully," "lame and insulting," and guilty of using a mixed metaphor.
Could it be that Cohen didn't find Colbert funny because he thought the comedian's jokes were on him? In the run-up to the Iraq War, Cohen had been precisely the kind of White House cheerleader Colbert was lampooning, once writing (2/6/03) that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s U.N. testimony proved “that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool--or possibly a Frenchman--could conclude otherwise.”
Cohen's colleague Dana Milbank agreed with him that Colbert “wasn’t terribly funny,” telling MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann (5/1/06) that the comic suffered in comparison with Bush's act, which Milbank called “one of the better performances of his presidency.”
When progressive blogs took issue with these sorts of dismissals (HuffingtonPost.com, 4/30/06) New Republic writer Noam Scheiber (TNR.com, 5/1/06) compared them to Stalinists:
That's a peculiar comparison in more ways than one. As liberal blogger Roger Ailes (5/2/06) explained in a response to Scheiber:
Um.... If someone gives a performance to nearly all the most powerful politicians and journalists in Washington, isn't the political content of the performance more important than its entertainment value? I mean, isn't a performance with surprising political content more newsworthy than a performance that's really, really funny?
Millions of non-journalists saw the Colbert routine as not merely pointed humor, but as a remarkable event where a sharp political satirist punctured the elite bubble that normally insulates the White House from direct criticism. If mainstream journalists didn't think it was funny when their self-image as fearless watchdogs was punctured as well--well, the joke's on them.