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The [Political] Papers: A Colbert Report

The news blackout in Chicago on Stephen Colbert's controversial keynote speech at the White House correspondents dinner a week ago ended on Sunday when the Sun-Times packaged a review by its TV critic with an edited transcript of the performance on the cover of its Controversy section, under the headline "The Mocking Of The President 2006."

That's right. If your only source of news is the Chicago newspapers, you've been in the dark about a story that has engaged not only the mystified political insiders and their media brethren in Washington, D.C., and the nation's newsrooms, but the political outsiders who shape public political debate on the Internet, talk radio, and cable-TV.

The Sun-Times put it this way in bold type above critic Doug Elfman's story: "For perhaps the first time, the president was forced to sit and listen to 'a litany of criminal and corruption allegations,' but the press 'gave Bush a free pass.'"

Left unsaid was the inclusion of the Sun-Times - and the Chicago Tribune - in Elfman's indictment. (And Elfman should know that the Colbert story isn't just the province of liberal blogs; some conservatives think Colbert was hired to do a "hit job" on the president.)

Before Sunday, the Sun-Times hadn't reported a whit about Colbert's performance in its print pages; Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet was forced to address the matter on her blog when she was taken to task for ignoring Colbert.

She didn't do well, complaining at one point, "I write a lot of serious stuff that never gets this much attention."

Which prompted this response:

"I think your comment about 'serious stuff' betrays the sort of thinking that would cause you to view Colbert's comments as no big deal. To many, Colbert's evisceration of the president and the press was exactly the sort of critique that's been missing for a few years now. Instead of writing about it, you noted the president's self-deprecation, as if we should be honored to have a president who can do a 'Who's dumber?' routine with an impersonator."

The Tribune is in the same boat, having let Colbert's performance and the ensuing controvery go unreported on in its print pages while being forced to join the debate online.

After the press dinner, Washington correspondent Frank James mentioned Colbert in a post to the paper's D.C. blog, The Swamp. James's post generated 125 comments, most similar to those that Sweet received.

Why? Well, James didn't get around to mentioning Colbert until the 15th paragraph of his post - after noting far more important matters such as spotting former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms and singer-pianist John Legend making their "grand entrances" to the event.

You also have to scroll through photos of Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright before getting to Colbert.

Once there, James demonstrates that, like most of the media there, he doesn't get Colbert, and is likely as unfamiliar with him as the White House Correspondents Association that hired him having heard he was popular. Maybe they thought they were getting Carrot Top.

James, for example, doesn't seem to recognize Colbert's comic persona - the one his entire show is built around - when he writes, "He was very hard on the president, with back-handed compliments like 'The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.'"

Yes, back-handed compliments.

James goes on to say the performance "raised that age-old question that goes back to the republic's start. How do you criticize the president without disrespecting the presidency?"

I'm facing a similar dilemma. How do I criticize a Chicago Tribune reporter holding a highly-prized and exceedingly important position as a Washington bureau correspondent while showing my utmost respect for the job? I think by criticizing the reporter.

And then James writes this: "Then there's the human dimension. Here's a comedian dissing a man non-stop in front of the subject's wife."

Mr. James? It's 1955 calling. They want their sensibility back.

James says that Bush impersonator Steve Bridges was the highlight of the night and, unlike with Colbert's insightful, cut-to-the-quick performance, recommends that readers watch Bridges on C-Span's Website or YouTube, which one of his kids probably told him about.

Here's what Elfman says about that.

"How did Bush tickle reporters? He made fun of the fact that he can barely speak English (he is quite simply the worst communicator of all U.S. presidents), that our vice president is a heartless face-shooter, and that Bush is basically an idiot.

"Ha ha, our 'war president' knows he's a village idiot? To members of the White House press corps, that's some real funny stuff."

Indeed, the only Tribune report on the dinner to make it into print was this brief from April 30:

Bush Lampoons Self At Press Corps Event

It was twice the fun for members of the White House Correspondents' Association and guests Saturday night when President Bush invited a look-alike, sound-alike sidekick to poke fun at himself.

"Ladies and gentleman, I feel chipper tonight. I survived the White House shakeup," the president said.

But impersonator Steve Bridges, stole many of the best lines, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

"Speaking of suspects, where is the great white hunter," Bridges said. "He shot the only trial lawyer in the country who supports me."

Stop, you're killing me.

To not be familiar with Colbert and his schtick is to be woefully out of touch not just with popular and comic culture, but with political culture. Obviously it didn't occur to the correspondents association that hiring Colbert to speak at their dinner for the president was akin to, say, hiring Hunter Thompson to speak at a dinner for Richard Nixon. In a perfect world, that would be just the reason to hire Colbert; in this case ignorance served us well. But in a perfect world, Washington reporters wouldn't be having jokey dinners with the president and his chums in the first place.

This blind spot about Colbert and his place in the culture is reminiscent of Tribune columnist and blogger Eric Zorn's schoolmarmish complaint earlier this year when the American Dialect Society chose Colbert's signature phrase "truthiness" as its 2005 Word of the Year.

"So rather than a word anybody actually uses or has heard of, the dialecticians give us a gag from a cable-TV comedy show," Zorn wrote.

Or, you could look at it this way: Even the friggin' American Dialect Society had heard of truthiness! But not our press.

Our political discourse does not take place in newspapers anymore, though. It takes place on talk radio, cable-TV, and the Internet. For all the faults of those mediums, they are open to the public in a way that newspapers are not. They are the public squares that were once limited to network news shows and Op-Ed pages, places that were never really public at all.

Despite the hand-wringing, this isn't a bad thing. It would be better, though, if mainstream journalists would come out of their holes and join the debate.

Otherwise they'll be left playing catch-up by publishing packages about stories they missed.


Posted on May 8, 2006

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PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Wisconsin Is America's Goatland.

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