Friday, May 05, 2006

Media message? Kill the court jester

So the family downloaded the video of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Association dinner and gathered around the old monitor to watch.

And being a journalism-based household, we all had the same reaction:

What in the HELL were these "journalists" doing at a gala event with the people they're supposed to be covering?

Most of the reaction to Colbert's performance has focused on how inappropriate it was for him to so badly embarrass the POTUS in public. And, not surprisingly, the Usual Suspects on the Right have crawled out of their spider holes to slime Colbert. What's surprising is how willing the "mainstream liberal media" has been to join the attack.

Actually, let me restate that: It would be surprising if you still bought the old canard about how the press -- especially the Washington press -- is a just partisan unit lying in wait for a chance to snipe at anything Republican.

Colbert is a comedian (from Charleston) who is funny because he finds ways to talk about the truths those of us in the media can't find the words to discuss. And one of those truths is that today's corporate media and "power-player press elites" are often as compromised as the political institutions they cover. Because if you think Colbert's humor targets only conservatives, you don't get the joke. Colbert's character on his Comedy Central show is a clown's mask on a media monster, Bill O'Reilly slipping on a banana, FOX News without the pretense. His subject isn't just politics, but media, and he's got our number.

So when Colbert makes fun of the White House's inability to give straight answers to hard questions, he's doing classic political humor. But his method of delivery -- his "newsman" character could be the evil love spawn of Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter -- expertly mocks my profession.

When Colbert tells the assembled White House press corps to stop questioning what the official spokesmen say, he advises his audience to go home and write that book they've always dreamed of, the one about the brave Washington reporter who isn't afraid to tell the truth, no matter the cost.

"You know," he says, "fiction!"

So that was a hard shot, and I'm glad it made some people squirm.

But let's talk about the other, unintended effect of Colbert's performance. Because of the viral publicity it has engendered -- concentric waves of awareness spreading out over a matter of days, unconstrained by mass-media news cycles -- people across the country are witnessing something that probably appears unfamiliar to most: The image of the political establishment and the media establishment in their true, cheek-to-jowl guise.

Listen: When the fox and the watchdog get dressed up and sit down for a collegial banquet of rubber chicken, that doesn't bode well for the henhouse. And because of Colbert's ballsy, truth-telling stunt, that's what Americans saw.

Here's a suggestion: Rather than carving up Colbert, why don't America's top Washington reporters swear off events like the WH Correspondents Dinner? If you don't want to be seen as a lapdog, try getting off of the goddamn lap first.