Monday, May 01, 2006

Mirror, Mirror on the wall....

When Bush joked about WMD's in Iraq at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2004, the audience roared. Until the day after:

The audience at Wednesday's 60th annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association obviously thought the quips hilarious - there were laughs all round - but the next morning, in the cold light of day, things looked far less amusing.
The "day after" started the night of the performance for Stephen Colbert:

Those seated near Bush told E&P's Joe Strupp, who was elsewhere in the room, that Bush had quickly turned from an amused guest to an obviously offended target as Colbert’s comments brought up his low approval ratings and problems in Iraq.

Several veterans of past dinners, who requested anonymity, said the presentation was more directed at attacking the president than in the past. Several said previous hosts, like Jay Leno, equally slammed both the White House and the press corps.

“This was anti-Bush,” said one attendee. “Usually they go back and forth between us and him.” Another noted that Bush quickly turned unhappy. “You could see he stopped smiling about halfway through Colbert,” he reported.

After the gathering, Snow, while nursing a Heineken outside the Chicago Tribune reception, declined to comment on Colbert. “I’m not doing entertainment reviews,” he said. “I thought the president was great, though.”

Strupp, in the crowd during the Colbert routine, had observed that quite a few sitting near him looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting--or too much speaking "truthiness" (Colbert's made-up word) to power.
Lots of questions come to mind, such as: what were they expecting? Colbert was asked to speak because of "The Colbert Report," and that's exactly what he delivered:

Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the "No Fact Zone." Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.
Jesse Kornbluth got it right:

Colbert, God love him, goes much further. His is a high-wire act that could go down in flames at any moment. For he doesn't satirize our idiot government and gutless media, he becomes the biggest idiot of all. He's the true believer, the guy totally on message, the loyalist who would give his all for the Commander-in-Chief.

And he never breaks the character. Which is amazing. We're rolling on the floor, wetting our pants, weeping with laughter, and he's still hammering home views that make Hannity and O'Reilly sound like moderates.
"Speaking truth to power," though? Is that what Colbert is doing? About that, I am not so sure. His life is not endangered by what he said; his employment is not threatened; his social status is not challenged. Speaking truth to power involves risk, real risk. It involves undercutting the very ground you stand on, in order to see if that is true or not, if your own position is merely one of privilege or blank acceptance, or if it can be relied on. In that sense, Colbert was not speaking truth to power: Colbert was merely holding up a mirror.

Great artists do that: they hold up a mirror that lets us see reality for what it is. The war paintings of Goya; "Guernica," by Picasso (the copy of which Colin Powell famously had covered at the UN before he would speak to the press there, after his infamous speech promoting war, which was nothing but lies. "Guernica" spoke truth to power, so power covered it up.) Shakespeare's plays. In fact, Shakespeare is an interesting example, closer to Colbert than any I can think of just now. No, Colbert is not Shakespeare; but Shakespeare never challenged the monarchy, the power structure of Elizabethan and then Jacobean England. He was always careful never to deny validity to the power of the monarchy. But he did show how that power could be abused: Macbeth, HHamlet, especially King Lear. He was careful to remove his observations in space and time, but what he said was true, nonetheless. But Shakespeare never challenged war, or the necessity of violence, or a rigidly hierarchical society. He held a mirror up, nothing more.

Stephen Colbert, in parody, reflected the thinking of the people in power in Washington, D.C., and the press corps which sycophantically "respect" them. John McCain is such a maverick he eats his salad with a spoon. And how far is this from reality?

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: 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 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.
Not far enough. Over two decades ago I read a critique of White House correspondents. Their days were spent waiting in small offices in the White House for an apperance by the Press Secretary: hours of tedium punctuated by "gaggles" and the occasional "press conference." But these men and women were the "elite" of the press corps. The role of "White House Correspondent" (in the days before cable news and 24 hour talking heads) was prestigious, of only because you were the guy on TV asking a question of the President. But why, the article asked, didn't these reporters act like reporters? Why didn't they go out and gather news, walk out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and interview the tourists from around the country, from around the world, and find out what people thought? Why did they wait for the Press Secretary to come and hand out the day's story to them?

The answer was obvious: beats working. "Make, announce, type." That one was obviously too shiny a mirror for the audience. But for the public?

Interestingly, Bush's comments [in 2004] were hardly controversial to the Beltway press corps, which seemed to write it off as harmlessly "self-deprecating" humor. Many of the press accounts the next day did not raise questions about Bush's humorous reference to his administration's bogus rationale for a war that has cost thousands of lives-- American and Iraqi. For the media, such humor was expected. "Well, every night we hear people on TV telling jokes about President Bush, but last night it was the president's turn to tell jokes about the president," CBS anchor Julie Chen explained (3/25/04), adding that "at least someone's making jokes about it other than the late-night talk show hosts."

CNN's American Morning show on March 25 provided a glimpse at the gulf between the media reaction and the public response to Bush's sense of humor. After playing some clips from Bush's speech, CNN anchor Bill Hemmer mentioned that "there was a slideshow shown a little later. Maybe we'll get to that later in our broadcast. There were some good funny lines in that, too."

But once CNN aired Bush's weapons jokes, its audience saw what the anchors and correspondents missed. CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien announced that the program was getting a surprisingly negative stream of emails from viewers, and asked Hemmer what the reaction at the dinner had been. He explained:

"I think the reception was pretty receptive, for lack of a better phrase. I can understand what you're hearing. There was a little rumbling about whether or not it was sensitive enough to the reality that we all know two and a half years later, also with the situation in Iraq as well. But overall, I think it was a speech that was given a way where the president tried to show a sense of humor, and I think, for the most part, it was taken that way." As the morning wore on, CNN co-anchor Jack Cafferty read numerous messages from outraged viewers, and characterized the reaction as "overwhelmingly" negative.
Will the public get the chance to react to Colbert? Peter Daou doesn't think so:

The AP's first stab at it and pieces from Reuters and the Chicago Tribune tell us everything we need to know: Colbert's performance is sidestepped and marginalized while Bush is treated as light-hearted, humble, and funny. Expect nothing less from the cowardly American media.
Interesting thing about the Snow White story: part of the evil Queen's evil, is her vanity. She preens in front of that mirror. She is infatuated with her image of herself, and she wants the mirror to confirm it.

There's a lot of truthiness in that fairy tale.

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