Colbert: Dirty work, but somebody has to do it
The media furor over whether Comedy Central’s conservative talking head-impersonator Stephen Colbert’s sharp-elbowed humor roasting President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner (video link here) was funny or not seems to miss the point. And as my colleague Jim Poniewozik points out, much of it has been focused on the question of whether he made the room laugh.
Of course he didn’t. They giggled uncomfortably now and then, less and less certain each time as Bush became more and more visibly uncomfortable. And that’s because the joke was on the media as much as on the President. Colbert was funny, but it was angry humor. What Comedy Central has done, through Jon Stewart and Colbert, is challenge the anasthetic role played by much of the U.S. media in contemporary American politics. Remember Jon Stewart going on CNN’s Crossfire and savaging the show’s role in substituting substantial political debate on issues that will affect millions of lives into a kind of Punch & Judy vaudeville? (If you don’t, here’s the video clip.) Colbert simply took it to the next level.
No event captures the pathos of the media’s relationship with power than the White House correspondents’ dinner, at which the President mocks himself and invites ridicule from the gathered media professionals that he and his administration spends all year treating as apprentices and stenographers. Just as carnival in the Caribbean was a pantomime subversion of race/class relations — the slaves got to play at being master for a day — so is the White House Correspondents Dinner a pantomime subversion of the real order of things.
The reason the “room” got so uncomfortable at Colbert’s merciless roast is that he was disrupting the chummy bonhomie of the White House-media relationship, in which the administration offers journalists the illusion of being treated as “insiders” in exchange for what in political terms we might call a “loyal opposition” posture. Colbert bust loose and began drawing attention to the things outside of this clubby relationship for which the administration ought to be held account. In the process, he was drawing attention, also, to a job that most of the U.S. media doesn’t do, because its relationship with power precludes that. To challenge Bush directly, to interrupt him when he is spewing unintelligible doggerel (reminiscent of the cartoon character Beavis saying “uh, heheheh, words and stuff, heheh” when he was at a loss) and say “You haven’t answered the question, here it is again” — as the Irish journalist Carole Coleman did in perhaps the only challenging interview of his presidency, and earning the eternal outrage of the White House — if you did that here, you’d lose access. And access is everything. Supposedly. So if any journalist from a mainstream American news organization did what Coleman did and got frozen out by the White House, they’d be of no use to their news organization — supposedly. I wouldn’t blame individual journalists for the extent to which the White House has managed to force the media into retreat from fulfilling its proper function in a democracy.
At least in Britain, when a politician doesn’t answer a question, it’s asked again. He or she will obviously evade again, but at least by doing that the journalist alerts the public to the fact that the politician is ducking the question, rather than remaining silent which unfortunately has the effect of suggesting the reporter is content with the answer. (Journalists do this all the time with the White House Press Secretary, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be done to the President — and the fact that he’d be angry is the worst possible reason for not doing it.)
Colbert’s impact on that room, then, was to make the guests a little uncomfortable about the relationship that binds them to the hosts. Which is exactly what we ought to expect from a good comedian in that situation. Just as we should expect our media to routinely roast those in power, pulling no punches. Making the President feel uncomfortable is not a comedian’s job; it’s the media’s job. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say, “dirty work, but somebody has to do it.”