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Why So Defensive?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 4, 2006; 1:18 PM

I continue to mull why the mainstream press -- and more specifically, the elites within it -- reacted so negatively to satirist Stephen Colbert's performance at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

It's worth looking at where Colbert was coming from. His show, of course, is a spin-off from Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central. Both Colbert and Stewart have risen to superstar status largely by calling (how can I put it here?) baloney on the Bush administration -- and on the press corps that transmits said baloney without the appropriate skepticism or irony.

Their very subversive message, at its core: That this Bush guy is basically a joke. And that the mainstream press is a joke, because it takes Bush at his word.

It's true that Colbert and Stewart have a lot of fans within the press corps who appreciate and maybe even envy their freedom to call it like they see it.

But I think that message was just too much for the self-satisfied upper crust of the media elite to handle when Colbert threw it right in their faces on Saturday night.

Here they were, holding a swanky party for themselves, and Colbert was essentially telling them that they've completely screwed up their number one job these past six years. Is it any surprise they were defensive?

As I wrote Monday and Tuesday, the initial wave of dinner coverage largely ignored Colbert's speech. That was followed by a second wave of critiques, that he wasn't funny.

The way I see it, the Washington press corps is still appropriately embarrassed that they screwed up in the run-up to war. Now, as Bush's approval ratings fester, they are getting bolder in challenging the official White House line on any number of issues. They're justifiably proud of a handful of great investigative pieces.

But they still haven't addressed the central issue Colbert was raising: Bush's credibility. As it happens, the public is way ahead of them on this one: For more than a year, the polls have consistently been showing that a majority of Americans don't find Bush honest and trustworthy.

And yet, as I've chronicled time and again in this column, (see, for instance, my Feb. 3 column, It's the Credibility, Stupid ) the mainstream press -- the very folks in that ballroom on Saturday night, the ones who actually have access to the president and his aides -- have allowed that fundamental issue to go unexplored.

What Colbert was saying about the guy sitting a few feet away from him -- and I think this is what made so many people in that room uncomfortable -- was: Don't believe a word he says.

Watching the President's Reactions

The YouTube version of Colbert's speech has apparently been deleted for copyright reasons. Bummer. But you can read the transcript here. And a reader called my attention to this ABC News video of Colbert, which has an added bonus: During the showing of Colbert's video -- a fantasy sequence in which he becomes press secretary -- the ABC video keeps the camera right on Bush.


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