Scene: White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Saturday night
Dramatis personae: Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central “talk show” host), Pres. George W.and Laura Bush, other government functionaries, the White House press corps
The news: Colbert ‘s rapid fire monologue and satirical video skewer Bush, Bush’s policies and the press corps, leaving no survivors — it’s like the story about the emperor with no clothes: Colbert is the little boy who points out the emperor is naked
The result: An obviously displeased, if not angry Bush, a chilly audience response, and zero coverage in the traditional media
It’s the last result that’s the most interesting here. While the blogosphere is all atwitter about Colbert’s performance, the mainstream media (MSM) focused instead on the scheduled appearance of a Bush lookalike and the president’s self-deprecating humor. Colbert’s short, caustic monologue was hardly mentioned.
In fact, the only MSM reference to Colbert’s performance was in the professional trade publication, Editor & Publisher.
Bloggers are accusing the MSM of being overly sympathetic to the president by choosing to sweep Colbert’s edgy monologue under the carpet, and instead playing up the Bush and Bush-lookalike shtick that immediately preceded Colbert’s appearance at the podium.
Well, the media are not conspiring to hide Bush’s foibles and open criticism of him. The media are instead just plain lazy.
If you go to Google News and pull up the bazillions of articles about the White House corps dinner, you will see that they are remarkably similar to one another. Why? Because the media running the story pulled it off the Associated Press wire, changed the article’s wording slightly, slapped a local by-line on it and printed it with a footnote to the effect that “parts of this story were contributed by the Associated Press.” It’s standard operating procedure.
Only a few dozen of the nation’s news outlets have White House correspondents. Instead, most smaller papers and stations rely on the news wire, network or newspaper chain correspondents. The same is true of other special correspondents.
So when the AP, for example, sends an article out to its thousands of subscribing news outlets, most take it as is and publish it as is. It’s known as the “rip and read” school of journalism. It’s not a sign of some overarching conspiracy to hide the truth. It’s an expedient editorial decision. You take advantage of the news service your employer is paying big bucks to use.
If anyone is to blame for ignoring Colbert, it would ironically be the AP, whose White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, is one of the few members of the White House press corps to challenge every announcement and policy decision of this administration. Thomas herself appeared in the video that Colbert showed at the event, so the AP was understandably trying to distance itself from Colbert altogether.
On the other hand, the AP is not the only source of news feeds, and here the bloggers have a point. What of Gannett, CNN, the radio and TV networks, Knight-Ridder, and the other media biggies? Did they see the whole episode as just an example of a comic bombing in front of his audience, and therefore not a news story? Or did they, as the bloggers accuse, choose to ignore Colbert to “protect” an already angered president?
In the grand scheme of news events, the Colbert performance is significant to only a select few, people who either detest Bush or who adore him. Colbert played to a small audience at a largely private affair, so from the viewpoint of a busy editor, it’s an amusing, but “so-what?” story. Writers on the op-ed pages might find it useful as fodder for commentary, but news it ain’t.
Those of us who believe Bush to be incompetent, if not outright dangerous as a president can relish Colbert’s monologue as an example of speaking truth to power. Meanwhile, Bush supporters no doubt saw as it an unpatriotic attack on their fearless leader.
Now, if the Department of Homeland Security arrests Colbert, as this satirical news report alleges, or if Comedy Central censors Colbert, as they have South Park’s jabs at Scientology and Mohammed, then Colbert’s White House performance will suddenly become News. Otherwise, it’s just a one-liner on page 12.