“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.
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
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
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
– 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]
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.
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
“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
Even before the Colbert controversy, the White
House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner and similar
press-politician hobnobbing have been cringing examples of unethical
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
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
Indeed, in a world with a truly independent news
media, it is hard to imagine there would ever be a White House
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.