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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