Hey, did you hear about the White House Correspondents Association dinner last weekend?
Oh, yeah, that cute thing where President Bush parried with a look-alike and poked fun at himself? That was adorable.
No, not that. Did you hear the three or four dozen verbal napalm bombs that Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert laid out for the president at the annual dinner on Saturday night? No?
Well, maybe it’s because much of the mainstream media — from CNN to Fox News, from the “Today” show to The New York Times — ignored or largely glossed over reporting on the stinging zingers Colbert lobbed Bush’s way in favor of brief mentions of his more innocuous jokes.
Colbert’s comments were nothing if not controversial.
During his show-closing roast, Colbert — whose TV program, “The Colbert Report,” is built on the premise that he is a flag-waving Bush apologist — looked the president in the eye and let loose a characteristically blistering barrage of invective, which was met with a stunned silence by the crowd and reportedly made the most powerful man in the free world squirm in his seat on the dais.
Colbert said things like, “Most of all, I believe in this president. Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ’reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias. … Sir, pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half-empty, because 32 percent means it’s two-thirds empty. There’s still some liquid in that glass is my point, but I wouldn’t drink it. The last third is usually backwash.”
There was also sarcastic praise for Bush’s tendency to stick to his guns. “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands,” Colbert said. “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.”
Colbert stayed in character during his entire monologue, calling Bush his “hero” and saying, just a minute into his talk, that being at the correspondents’ dinner made him feel like he was dreaming. “Somebody pinch me,” he said, setting up a sharp left jab to Vice President Dick Cheney. “You know what? I’m a pretty sound sleeper, that may not be enough. Somebody shoot me in the face.”
No aspect of the president’s troubles over the past year was given a pass: From the NSA spying scandal (“If anybody needs anything at their tables, speak slowly and clearly on into your table numbers and somebody from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail”), to the premature declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq he made three years ago to the disastrous government response to Hurricane Katrina.
“I stand by this man because he stands for things,” Colbert said. “Not only for things, has he stood on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
One reason for the media’s reluctance to report Colbert’s comments could be that some were directed at them.
“Here’s how it works,” he said. “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. Put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve 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.”
He also took some broad slaps at Fox News, saying the news station gives you every side of a story: “the president’s side and the vice president’s side.”
Not surprisingly, Colbert got a chilly reception after the speech from the president and his wife. According to an account in Editor and Publisher, “as Colbert walked from the podium, when it was over, the president and first lady gave him quick nods, unsmiling. The president shook his hand and tapped his elbow, and left immediately.”
More surprising has been the chilly reception his speech — the sentiment of which was very much in line with any number of editorials that appear in major American periodicals every week — has received from the mainstream media. Some outlets have essentially treated him as they would a heckler; others criticized his failure to observe the decorum of the annual dinner, the jokes of which traditionally stop well short of Colbert’s level of intensity.
Writing in a blog on the Web site of the conservative magazine National Review, reporter Stephen Spruiell suggested that the virtual media blackout was not a result of the press protecting Bush, but rather their colleague, Colbert.
“I like Stephen Colbert — as someone who watches cable news every day, I find his pundit-show satire is dead-on,” Spruiell wrote. “But his routine at the WHCD was not funny. It was not effective satire, either. It meandered all over the place, ending with the usual leftist critique of the reporters who cover the White House: that, with the exception of Helen Thomas, they are an uncritical bunch of stenographers who rarely challenge the administration’s line on anything. … The jokes bombed because the truth in comedy is what makes it funny.
“The lefty bloggers who are now complaining believe that Colbert’s critique of the White House press corps was accurate, but by and large they also believe that the Bush administration is a criminal enterprise and that all reporters should be spouting invective and accusations at press conferences — like Helen Thomas.”
Elizabeth Fishman, assistant dean for academic affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism and a former “60 Minutes” producer, had a different explanation for the media’s favoring of the skit with Bush and his impersonator. “I thought some of the things he said were more provocative than what I’ve typically seen,” she said. “But from working in television news, the quick hit — whether it’s morning or evening news shows — is to have the Bush impersonator standing next to him. It’s an easier set up for visual effect.”
However, Columbia School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin begged to differ. “It’s too hot to handle,” said Gitlin, who teaches journalism and sociology. “He was scathing toward Bush and it was absolutely devastating. They don’t know how to handle such a pointed and aggressive criticism.” Gitlin said the criticism was so harsh that its omission from most major news outlets made it all the more remarkable.
“I think this is a case of a media who have tiptoed away from the embrace of the administration and are now reluctant to take what would seem to them a deeper plunge into the wilderness of criticism,” Gitlin said. “When Bush makes fun of himself, it’s within a very narrow and limited framework. But Colbert’s digs went to some of [Bush’s] fundamental incapacities.”
A spokesperson for Colbert declined MTV News’ request for comment. Comedy Central and MTV are both owned by Viacom.