Monday, May 15, 2006

Colbert Redux

Occasionally I'll throw in a serious piece like the following:

Stephen Colbert has legs and so, too, apparently does the story about his performance at this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner.

For those who missed it, Mr. Colbert stayed in character as the Bill O’Reilly-type host of his Comedy Central satirical show "The Colbert Report." As a fictional right-wing commentator, Mr. Colbert appeared to support the guest of honor, President Bush, while all the time wickedly lampooning him for everything from his intellectually incurious nature to the Iraq War.

I thought it was not only a funny performance; I considered Mr. Colbert courageous to play the clever, critical jester in the court of King George, even taking a few shots at the lapdog nature of the White House press corps.

But not everyone agreed with that assessment. Not surprisingly, most of the finger-waggers were members of the very same media who had gotten all dolled up for their annual lovefest with the president.

Chief among the tut-tutting scribes was liberal columnist Richard Cohen of "The Washington Post." Rather than celebrate the fact that Mr. Colbert was doing the job that the media had foregone, Mr. Cohen lambasted him for being unfunny and a bully.

Some observers were perhaps surprised by such a strong reaction from one who has made his living the last five years criticizing the Bush Administration. I must admit that I, too, was initially caught off guard by such a strident attack.

But on further reflection, it was really no surprise at all. Mr. Cohen is part of the Washington media establishment that depends for its existence and livelihood on the maintenance of a cordial symbiotic relationship with the government of the day.

After his column ran, Mr. Cohen received thousands of nasty e-mails challenging his position. He was genuinely surprised at the extent of the angry reaction and, in a subsequent column, sought to characterize it as the misguided digital lynching of an earnest liberal by a shortsighted left-wing mob.

Mr. Cohen's surprise at the emotional reaction of the blogosphere simply underscores the fact that he has to get out of Washington more often. I doubt that most of his e-mail critics viewed him as a dyed-in-the-wool Bush supporter. Rather, I suspect that they were simply upset with the cozy relationship between the President and the press that was on display at the correspondents’ dinner.

The typical extra-D. C. reader likely doesn't understand the gentlemen's agreement that inside-the-Beltway types abide by when they attend that dinner. They probably don't understand how the press can be so chummy with an administration that is doing so much harm.

What to Mr. Cohen seems like a question of good manners is to them a matter of utmost gravity. They don’t understand the inside view: Mr. Colbert didn't play by the unstated rules and thereby threatened the elitist underpinnings of the Washington establishment.

Some commentators like Dante Chinni of "The Christian Science Monitor" have suggested that the annual dinner should be eliminated and I think that's a good idea. If your job is to investigate and expose shortcomings and corruption in government, then you shouldn't pretend that you're like a lawyer battling an opponent in court who can easily fraternize with his adversary after his day's work is done.

This is not litigation; this is the fate of the nation and even the world. As a liberal columnist who has taken Mr. Bush to task numerous times, Mr. Cohen should know this better than anyone.

Here in Canada, the annual Press Gallery dinner held with the Prime Minister used to be a private, off-the-record, drunken event which accentuated the insider status of those in attendance and reinforced the cynicism about the relationship between politics and journalism. Making the event public (like the Washington equivalent) helped alleviate some of the cynicism but did little to cure the essentially dysfunctional nature of that relationship.

I suggest that both Washington and Ottawa get rid of these events and encourage the members of the media to get back to doing their jobs. It’s time for the press to take their responsibility more seriously. That means not only presenting an unbiased view but avoiding any appearances of bias.

Don’t be seduced by the perks of the position. Don’t sell out your principles for a fancy dinner with the President. Remember why you entered your profession and keep your distance from the foe.

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