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Colbert & the Courtier Press

By Robert Parry
May 5, 2006

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has joined the swelling ranks of big-name journalists outraged over comedian Stephen Colbert’s allegedly rude performance, offending George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on April 29.

“Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude,” Cohen wrote. “Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person’s sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.”

According to Cohen, Colbert was so boorish that he not only criticized Bush’s policies to the President’s face, but the comedian mocked the assembled Washington journalists decked out in their tuxedos and evening gowns.

“Colbert took a swipe at Bush’s Iraq policy, at domestic eavesdropping, and he took a shot at the news corps for purportedly being nothing more than stenographers recording what the Bush White House said,” Cohen wrote. “Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.” [Washington Post, May 4, 2006]

Yet, while Cohen may see himself defending decorum and civility, his column is another sign of what's terribly wrong with the U.S. news media: With few exceptions, the Washington press corps has failed to hold Bush and his top advisers accountable for their long record of deception and for actions that have violated U.S. constitutional principles and American moral standards.

Over the past several years, as Bush asserted unlimited presidential powers and implemented policies that have led the United States into the business of torture and an unprovoked war in Iraq, Washington journalists mostly stayed on the sidelines or actively assisted the administration, often wrapping its extraordinary actions in a cloak of normality designed more to calm than alert the public. At such a dangerous moment, when a government is committing crimes of state, politeness is not necessarily a virtue.

So, average Americans are growing more and more agitated because too often in the past five years they have watched the national press act more like courtiers to a monarch than an independent, aggressive Fourth Estate. This fawning style of the Washington media continued into the April 29 dinner.

Even as the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq passed 2,400 and the toll of Iraqi dead soared into the tens of thousands, the journalists seemed more interested in staying in Bush’s favor than in risking his displeasure. Like eager employees laughing at the boss’ jokes, the journalists applauded Bush’s own comedy routine, which featured a double who voiced Bush’s private contempt for the news media while the real Bush expressed his insincere respect.

WMD Search

Two years ago, at a similar dinner, journalists laughed and clapped when Bush put on a slide show of himself searching under Oval Office furniture for Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Rather than shock over Bush’s tasteless humor – as the President rubbed the media’s noses in the deceptions about Iraq’s WMD – the press corps played the part of the good straight man. Even representatives of the New York Times and the Washington Post – the pillars of what the Right still likes to call the “liberal media” – sat politely after having served as little more than conveyor belts for Bush’s pre-war propaganda.

But the media’s willful blindness didn’t end even when Bush’s WMD claims were no longer tenable. Less than a year ago, as evidence surfaced in Great Britain proving that Bush had twisted the WMD intelligence, major U.S. newspapers averted their eyes and chastised anyone who didn’t go along.

The so-called Downing Street Memo and other official government papers, which appeared in British newspapers in late spring 2005, documented how the White House in 2002 and early 2003 was manipulating intelligence to justify invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein.

On July 23, 2002, British intelligence chief Richard Dearlove told Prime Minister Tony Blair about discussions with top Bush advisers in Washington, according to the meeting minutes. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Dearlove said. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “LMSM – the Lying Mainstream Media.”]

Despite that dramatic evidence – emerging in June 2005 – the Washington Post failed to pay much attention. When hundreds of Post readers complained, a lead editorial lectured them for questioning the Post’s news judgment.

“The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations,” the Post’s editorial sniffed. “Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.” [Washington Post, June 15, 2005]

When Rep. John Conyers and a few Democratic congressmen tried to draw public attention to the historically important British documents – but were denied an actual hearing room by the Republican majority – Post political correspondent Dana Milbank mocked the Democrats for the cheesy surroundings of their rump hearing.

“In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe,” Milbank wrote. “They pretended a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room, draping white linens over folding tables to make them look like witness tables and bringing in cardboard name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look official.” [Washington Post, June 17, 2005]

‘Not Funny’

After Colbert’s lampooning of Bush and the Washington press corps, Milbank appeared on MSNBC on May 1 to pronounce the comedian’s spoof “not funny,” while Milbank judged the President’s skit with Bush impersonator Steve Bridges a humorous hit.

Milbank’s assessment was shared by many journalists at the dinner, a reaction that can partly be explained by the pressure Washington reporters have long felt from well-organized right-wing media-attack groups to give Bush and other conservatives the benefit of every doubt. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Bush Rule of Journalism" or Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

For Washington journalists, who realized their reactions at the dinner were being broadcast on C-SPAN, laughing along with Bush was a win-win -- they could look good with the White House and avoid any career-damaging attacks from the Right -- while laughing at Colbert’s jokes could have been a career lose-lose. However clever Colbert’s jokes were, they were guaranteed to face a tough crowd with a lot of reasons to give the comedian a chilly reception.

Colbert’s monologue also struck too close to home when he poked fun at the journalists for letting the country down by not asking the tough questions before the Iraq War.

Using his faux persona as a right-wing Bush acolyte, Colbert explained to the journalists their proper role: “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.”  [To watch Colbert, click here.] 

Cringing Behavior

Even before the Colbert controversy, the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner and similar press-politician hobnobbing have been cringing examples of unethical journalistic behavior.

The American people count on the news media to act as their eyes and ears, as watchdogs on the government, not lap dogs wagging tails and licking the faces of administration officials. Whatever value these dinners might once have had – as an opportunity for reporters to get to know government sources in a more casual atmosphere – has long passed.

Since the mid-1980s, the dinners have become competitions among the news organizations to attract the biggest Hollywood celebrities or infamous characters from the latest national scandal. Combined with lavish parties sponsored by free-spending outlets like Vanity Fair or Bloomberg News, the dinners have become all about the buzz.

Plus, while these self-indulgent affairs might seem fairly harmless in normal political times, they are more objectionable when American troops are dying overseas and the Executive Branch is asserting its right to trample constitutional rights, including First Amendment protections for journalists.

This contradiction is especially striking as the news media fawns over Bush while he attacks any nascent signs of journalistic independence. The administration is currently looking into the possibility of jailing investigative reporters and their sources for revealing policies that the White House wanted to keep secret, such as warrantless wiretaps of Americans and clandestine overseas prisons where detainees are hidden and allegedly tortured.

The fact that so many national journalists see no problem cavorting with Bush and his inner circle at such a time explains why so many Americans have reached the conclusion that the nation needs a new news media, one that demonstrates a true commitment to the public’s right to know, rather than a desire for cozy relations with the insiders.

Indeed, in a world with a truly independent news media, it is hard to imagine there would ever be a White House Correspondents’ dinner.

In such a world, the Washington Post also might find better use for its treasured space on its Op-Ed page than giving it over to a columnist who favors decorum over accountability. The Post might even hire a columnist who would object less to a sharp-tongued comedian lampooning a politician and complain more about a President who disdains domestic and international law, who tolerates abusive treatment of prisoners, and who inflicts mayhem on a nation thousands of miles away that was not threatening the United States.

Only the likes of Richard Cohen could see George W. Bush as the victim and Stephen Colbert as the bully.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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