Why So Defensive?

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.

That starts at about 16:40. And if you want to go wild, you can sync that up with the C-SPAN version , which does show the video (starting at 1:23.)

You'll see that Bush chuckles at first. But at 17:55, when NBC's David Gregory asks "Did Karl Rove commit a crime?" Bush's jaw makes that peculiar shifting motion that seems to happen a lot when he's under stress.

At about 19:14, when Hearst columnist and presidential scourge Helen Thomas makes her first appearance on the video, correspondents' association president Mark Smith says something to Bush, which he shrugs off. Was it an apology? (Any lip readers out there?)

And check out the contemptuous head-shake at 19:42, just as Thomas is finally uncorking her seminal question: "Why did you really want to go to war?"

From then on, there are jaw twitches, lip purses and eye squinches aplenty.

There's a wry smile at 22:49. If I'm not mistaken, that's at the point where it looked like Colbert might just possibly run Thomas over with his car.

When the video ends -- "Helen Thomas, ladies and gentlemen!" says Colbert -- Bush responds with very sarcastic-looking, lackluster applause.

Colbert as Touchstone

Time TV critic James Poniewozik writes: "Was he funny or not? Days after Stephen Colbert performed at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, this has become the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006 -- like whether you drive a hybrid or use the term 'freedom fries.' . . .

"Personally, I thought Colbert was good, if not his best; he flubbed a couple of jokes notably and recycled some lines from his own show. . . . But I think that the people who said Colbert bombed reveal less about their political leanings than about their understanding of the media culture we live in now. The reason they think he flopped, of course, is that he didn't get many big laughs in the room. And once upon a time, that would have been what mattered. . . .

"Today, however, thanks to the reposting of the Colbert video online, any of you who are curious about Colbert's performance have probably already seen it. Colbert wasn't playing to the room, I suspect, but to the wide audience of people who would later watch on the Internet. If anything, he was playing against the room -- part of the frisson of his performance was the discomfort he generated in the audience, akin to the cringe humor of The Ali G Show. . . .

"To the audience that would watch Colbert on Comedy Central, the pained, uncomfortable, perhaps-a-little-scared-to-laugh reaction shots were not signs of failure. They were the money shots. They were the whole point."

Mainstream Media: It's Not Funny!

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "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."

The authors of The Washington Post's gossip column were Live Online yesterday.

Roxanne Roberts: "The fact is that, sitting in the ballroom, Colbert's act just wasn't that funny. The persona he uses so effectively on Comedy Central didn't work nearly as well in a stand up format. There were a few good one liners, but it failed to capture the crowd. It may have played better on television."

Amy Argetsinger: "Here's the thing: This insular world of Beltway journalists ADORES Steve Colbert. That's why you saw so many profiles of the guy as he launched his show, and that's why he was invited to perform at the dinner, duh. So to say that the crowd was offended by him. . . . I don't think so."

Alternative Media: Here's What's Not Funny

Joan Walsh writes in Salon: "This is a battle that can't really be won -- you either got it Saturday night (or Sunday morning, or whenever your life was made a little brighter by viewing Colbert's performance) or you didn't. Personally, I'm enjoying watching apologists for the status quo wear themselves out explaining why Colbert wasn't funny. It's extending the reach of his performance by days without either side breaking character -- the mighty Colbert or the clueless, self-important media elite he was satirizing. For those who think the media shamed itself by rolling over for this administration, especially in the run-up to the Iraq war, Colbert's skit is the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you, Stephen Colbert!"

Former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon: "Some in the press understand the peril posed to the First Amendment by an imperial president trying to smother the constitutional system of checks and balances. For those of the Washington press corps who reproved a court jester for his irreverence, the game of status is apparently more urgent than the danger to liberty. But it's no laughing matter."

Woof!

Perfect timing: Eric Boehlert today publishes a lengthy excerpt from his new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush," in Salon: "Battered by accusations of a liberal bias and determined to prove their conservative critics wrong, the press during the run-up to the war -- timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking -- came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existing in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest."

Kill the Dinner?

Rem Rieder writes for the American Journalism Review: "This dinner has been an embarrassment for years. . . .

"The problem is that this black tie underscores the notion that journalists are part of a wealthy elite, completely out of touch with ordinary Americans -- their audience."

Gas Price Watch

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "President Bush has a big problem with high gas prices. Either the public isn't listening to him, or they don't believe what he's saying. . . .

"Bush's aides are convinced that their biggest problem, besides Iraq, is the price of gasoline. . . .

"Their solution: keep talking about it. The favored approach is to lay out a policy and repeatedly place the president in situations -- like alternative-energy labs -- to remind the public about that policy. Bush's aides say there's little they can do to affect prices; all they can do is try to affect public perceptions of the president's performance. 'The public is smart enough to know that we didn't get into this quickly and we're not going to get out of it quickly,' said one senior Bush aide. 'But that doesn't mean we're not trying.'

"In fact, the public believes the opposite -- that Bush isn't trying."

Ed Henry reports on CNN: "As the political stakes grow higher, the White House seems to be trying to lower expectations, prepare consumers for the worst, calling this a crisis, and also saying the president basically has limited opportunities to deal with this.

"Nevertheless, the White House is eager to get the president out there to show that he is sort of rolling up his sleeves, working with Congress, trying to find some sort of a solution. As you noted, today he sat down once again, just as he did last week, a bipartisan group of senators, trying to work through this issues. . . .

"Now, after the meeting, a parade of senators in both parties came to the microphones here at the White House and proclaimed it was a very good meting, constructive meeting, et cetera. But they all admitted that there really was no breakthrough at all, that they did not have any new policy initiatives from the president, and also that they did not get anywhere with any of the initiatives already on the table."

Veto Watch

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "President Bush prodded Congress over tax cuts on Wednesday and renewed his threat to veto a bill that would pay for the Iraq war and Gulf Coast recovery if the Senate measure's price tag was too high.

"Even as the president issued his warning, lawmakers added special requests to the bill, ratcheting up its cost to $109 billion, well over Mr. Bush's ceiling of $92.2 billion for the war and hurricane recovery, with an additional $2.3 billion to prepare for a flu pandemic."

Passing On Problems

You'll often hear Bush saying something along these lines: "The American people did not place us in office to pass on problems to future generations and future Presidents and future Congresses."

But as Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "With this week's hard-fought agreement on a $70 billion tax-cut extension, President Bush and congressional Republicans have effectively set a date for a fiscal day of reckoning for the next president and a future Congress: Jan. 1, 2011. . . .

"At that moment, politicians would face a choice: Either allow taxes to rise suddenly and sharply on everyone who pays income taxes, is married, has children, holds stocks and bonds, or expects a large inheritance, or impose mounting budget deficits on the government far into the future, according to projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office."

Moussaoui Verdict Reaction

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Wednesday a federal jury that spared the life of al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui did 'something that he evidently wasn't willing to do for innocent American citizens.'

"Bush declined to say whether he was satisfied with the jury's decision to reject the death penalty in favor of a sentence of life imprisonment. The government had sought the death penalty.

"The president commented on the case during a brief question and answer session in the Oval Office. He also issued a written statement in which he said the verdict 'represents the end of this case but not an end to the fight against terror.' "

Karen Hughes Watch

Karen Hughes may have been hugely successful in helping Bush frame his messages at the White House, but she's apparently having a devil of a time at the State Department.

The Associated Press reports: "State Department efforts to reach more than 1.5 billion Muslims in 58 countries to counter anti-American criticism lack a strong central message and a strategic plan of communication, the Government Accountability Office said Wednesday.

"Last year, the department spent $597 million on public diplomacy under the direction of Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, and spending is due to increase this year."

Here's that GAO report .

Laura Bush Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Laura Bush has a knack for making it known when she doesn't agree with her husband. But on the subject of belting out 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in Spanish, it's not clear whether the first lady is in President Bush's camp or not. . . .

"Asked her opinion on Wednesday in an interview with CNN's John King, Mrs. Bush said, 'I don't think there's anything wrong with singing it in Spanish.' . . .

"But when it was pointed out that this position differed from her husband's, Mrs. Bush had a different answer. . . .

" 'Well, I think it should be sung in English, of course,' she said."

Here's the transcript from CNN.

No Colbert Questions?

The first lady did interviews yesterday with all the major networks. By and large, in spite of her growing influence on the campaign trail, she still gets nothing but softballs.

In fact, Frank James writes in the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog: "How is it, I ask, that First Lady Laura Bush could appear on the network morning shows today and have no one ask her about the Colbert performance?"

Scooter Libby Watch

Judge Reggie Walton issued an opinion and order yesterday, agreeing with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald that his earlier rulings on some procedural issues had been in error, and reversing them.

But don't look for any stories in the traditional media. There aren't any that I could find.

Luckily, Firedoglake blogger Christy Hardin Smith doesn't miss a thing.

Valerie Plame Watch

Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times: "Valerie Plame Wilson, the Central Intelligence Agency covert officer whose name was publicly disclosed three years ago, is shopping a book proposal among a small group of publishers, according to two people familiar with the project."

New Orleans Redux

Jeffrey Jones writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush angrily demanded a fire he spotted in flood-ravaged New Orleans from aboard Air Force One be put out immediately, according to excerpts of a new book attacking top government officials for the confusion following Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"[Douglas] Brinkley, an author and historian at Tulane University, quotes Congressman William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, describing Bush viewing the damage from aboard Air Force One five days after the storm. He said Bush asked Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff about a fire in the city.

"Chertoff explained that fire departments were struggling in the aftermath of the hurricane and having difficulty extinguishing blazes because water pressure was too low.

" 'Put the fire out, now! There is water everywhere. I want the fire out,' Bush was quoted as yelling."

Gordon Russell writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "President Bush, by Brinkley's lights, put too much trust in ill-equipped federal appointees, particularly Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and then-FEMA Director Michael Brown. Bush also engaged in a pointless set-to with Gov. Kathleen Blanco over who would control federal troops in Louisiana, Brinkley alleges. . . .

"Brinkley credits Blanco's refusal to cede control of National Guard units to the president with changing the course of Bush's second term in office."

Mary Cheney's Story

ABC News previews tonight's big get: "She says she considered quitting her role as campaign adviser over the issue of gay marriage, but Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary Cheney tells ABC News 'Primetime' anchor Diane Sawyer her sexuality has never created problems within her family. . . .

" 'I struggled with my decision to stay on the 2004 campaign,' Cheney told 'Primetime.' Her personal challenge came when President Bush said the nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.

"When Bush proclaimed it in the State of the Union, she refused to go. Mary Cheney, a senior campaign adviser, was finally taking her stand.

" 'I didn't want to be there. No one banned me from being there. But I didn't want to stand up and cheer,' she said.

"She says the president offered to let her give a public statement in disagreement, and her father indicated publicly he disagreed with his boss on the issue. She declined but says she did talk with her family about quitting the campaign."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'm making my inaugural foray on WTWP, Washington Post Radio, tomorrow afternoon just after 2 p.m. Come listen.

Late Night Humor

The Associated Press reports: "Perhaps sensing vulnerability, the late-night comics have been piling on President Bush.

"During the first three months of the year, Bush has been the punch line of 307 monologue jokes by Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, according to the Center for Media and Public affairs, which studies this sort of thing.

"That compares to 197 jokes during the same period last year. For all of 2005, the center's statisticians counted 544 Bush jokes. . . .

"Most of the jokes are about Bush's intelligence, rather than his policies, the center said.

"For example:

" 'Did you know former President James Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other at the same time?' Leno said. 'That was Garfield. When President Bush heard about it, he said, "We had a talking cat for president?" ' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive