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How Stephen Colbert Got Picked, Truthy, And Panned

How Stephen Colbert Got Picked, Got Truthy, And Got Panned

By Bill Grigsby

This White House has challenged the frontiers of propaganda and political discourse in ways that make previous administrations look like rank amateurs. Mainstream news media outlets may occasionally report, but the vast majority shy away from labeling government accounts as propaganda. To wit:

1. The U.S. Government invades Iraq, claiming their ‘weapons of mass destruction’ pose an imminent threat to Americans, and three years later tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead or maimed, and there is evidence of high rates of birth defects from depleted uranium weaponry. While still tragic, U.S. casualties are just below 2,500 (as of May 15, 11:15 pm Pacific Daylight Time). With no WMDs, or end for that matter, in sight. WMDs indeed …

2. The BushCo Administration—the architects of unprovoked war in the Middle East, of torture, ‘extraordinary rendition,’ massive accounting fraud, underfunded mandates (Medicare and NCLB come to mind …) and endless debt for your grandchildren, the spectacular bungling of the Gulf Coast relief effort, and the resulting, cumulative loss of U.S. standing in the world—is transforming the U.S. government personnel system to reflect a ‘performance-based’ model. From the people who brought you the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA purge, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, and 1/3 more political appointees. Can they type performance-based with a straight face?

3. A massive supply-side policy campaign to redistribute and concentrate wealth through tax cuts, corporate welfare, and corporate capture of executive branch agencies, enabled by a Republican-controlled Congress, is sold as a boon to families and small businesses, and during election campaigns often called the ‘ownership society.’ The true irony of ‘neocon’ gets lost in translation.

But of all the Orwellian perversions perpetrated by the BushCo White House, perhaps the most spectacular is the ‘free speech zone.’ The BushCo Administration can’t take credit for inventing the concept—it was used by the Clinton Administration after the WTO protests in Seattle. But BushCo has, with help from their friends in law enforcement and corporate news, turned the ‘free speech zone’ concept into a privilege, not a right.

What about the first amendment, you say? Don’t we live in a free speech zone? The modern White House invests more time and taxpayer money on image control than most movie producers. ‘Free speech zones’ lower the risk of investment, by keeping dissenters away from news cameras and potentially newsworthy events, in fenced livestock pens with surveillance cameras. Those who have tried to attend by-invitation-only BushCo events have been occasionally harassed, removed, and arrested. Dissent and open public debate risk engaged citizens, questions of substance, heightened public awareness, and neglect of PR deliverables: appropriated symbols, politically charged rhetoric, divisive governing strategy, and sleight-of-hand news management.

But how do the White House and GOP know whom to consign to the ‘free speech zones?’ How indeed. Public/private information sharing and intelligence agency shell games help confuse and obscure. The TSA’s ‘no-fly list’ is one of the more infamous, that we know about. Then there’s the recently-exposed phone call database. And John Poindexter’s publicly discredited, all-seeing ‘total information awareness’ data mining project merely migrated to the NSA. ‘So what,’ you say, ‘I’ve got nothing to hide!’ Apparently, at least when it comes to WMDs, neither did Iraq. The BushCo Administration, however, has lots to hide, and ‘free speech zones’ have a role to play in a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign—their media strategy.

Recently, political satirist Stephen Colbert somehow penetrated White House gatekeeping protocol for a ‘real’ media event—the White House correspondents’ dinner. Normally this is where the news media and White House staff watch the president show his ‘human side,’ like the year G. W. got on his knees to search under the table for the still-unfound, likely-destroyed Iraq WMDs (disabled vets were coughing up radioactive blood laughing at that one …). Colbert broke tradition. He looked at the president and said, to paraphrase the bumper sticker, ‘you’re a nice enough guy, except for the lies and deception, but I wouldn’t want to see you working with subatomic particles.’ He also chided the journalists in the crowd for failing to expose White House scandals. As Michael Scherer said, ‘the truthiness hurts’ (wish I’d said that …).

And how did the audience respond? It ran the gamut from polite laughter to respectful scowl—the journalists, sitting next to White House staffers, would be hitting them up the next day for tidbits of carefully filtered, White House-approved news swill to fill their papers and websites. Laughing too hard might cost a future invitation to an ‘anonymous backgrounder.’
The pundit reaction was cool. The story line wasn’t about someone looking the leader of the free world in the eye and ridiculing his record, but about whether he was funny.

And apparently he wasn’t. Comedy critic for the Washington Post Richard Cohen said "Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude. . . . [H]e is representative of what too often passes for political courage, not to mention wit, in this country." Even the Post’s Dana Milbank said on Keith Olbermann’s show that Colbert just wasn’t that funny, and reduced the newsworthiness to a comparison of comedy routines, in which ‘Bush comes out ahead.’

A few observations are in order. First, all it took was one comic routine, and the flak machine was out in full force. To critique a comedy routine. If only Bush’s State of the Union Addresses, or (God forbid) White House policies, were scrutinized so closely. ‘Mainstream’ pundits were right in there, too, with mainstream criticisms, making a big deal out of this not being a big deal. It was left for blogs to express solidarity. Second, there’s plenty of comedy on the nightly commercial news, if you know how to look. Journalists’ job is to keep a straight face and avoid jeopardizing ratings. Comedians get to be more honest about it. Why is it that satirists—the Colberts, Jon Stewarts, and Bill Mahers, often armed only with irony—seem to have more courage (Richard Cohen notwithstanding) than commercial journalists to make public officials squirm? The Washington Post, PBS and New York Times had exclusive interviews with Bush, one of the most controversial presidents in our country’s history, that produced nothing of news value, other than the fact that they had exclusives (and in the Post’s case, after a generous contribution for the Inauguration Ball). And third, Colbert ultimately was staying in character from his show—a parody of Fox News Flak Hack Bill O’Reilly, one of the most contemptible public figures lurking around the periphery of contemporary journalism. He was building his brand (or anti-brand). What could be more American??

In the end, the “newsiness” of the event may be that free speech and mass media don’t mix—it’s a volatile, unpredictable cocktail. And if democracy depends on a free commercial mass news media (we should all hope it doesn’t), then every day, when the nightly news comes on the screen, in between commercial breaks, waving flags, news tickers and sucking sounds, we’re a little less democratic as a nation (if Noam Chomsky were reading this he would be chuckling sardonically about now). Like Colbert, maybe these journalists are building their brand, or their employer’s brand, for non-threatening filler that doesn’t offend advertisers or compromise journalists’ own political connections. Unlike Colbert, they may lack a legitimate claim to any principle higher than self-interest.

Are they bad people? No more or less than most other groups. In your modern industrial, ever-globalizing (at least for now, but that’s another uncovered story) economy, there are few material rewards for pointing out, for the public’s benefit, that the emperor is nekked. The individual journalists come and go—it is the system that is corrupting. Will anchor Katie Couric’s arrival at CBS revolutionize network news? Maybe, but only if ratings and celebrity rule. Most mainstream reporters have been conditioned to take the path of least resistance, denying the news value of reporting on those who dare defy convention. After all, who besides independent journalists wants to cover the unpleasantness of dissenters in their free speech zones?

Isn’t that the job of the NSA?


©2006 Bill Grigsby
Eastern Oregon University

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