I don’t know what the White House Correspondents Association was expecting when it picked Stephen Colbert to deliver the final speech at this year’s annual White House Correspondents Dinner, but it probably wasn’t what actually happened when he did just that last week.
Colbert, who on his Comedy Central show ‘The Colbert Report’ plays a narcissistic, uber-conservative, Bush-loving pundit who has nothing but contempt for the media, liberals and anyone who dares to question our fearless leader, proceeded to get up before an audience consisting of mostly those people (as well as our fearless leader himself) and speak his mind—but under the guise of his onscreen character.
Foregoing the unwritten piece of etiquette that the president is not to be seriously criticized in person, Colbert threw out jokes that referenced the discouraging state of Iraq, the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s penchant for fantastic photo opportunities. He made a passing reference to a glacier and then said ‘Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is,’ and praised the president with the observation that ‘events can change. This man’s beliefs never will.’
On a night when the last thing the president probably wanted to think about was his sinking poll numbers and the growing perception that his insular administration refuses to accept the responsibility for its long list of mistakes, Colbert decided to remind him of exactly that. ‘I’m with the president,’ he declared. ‘Let history decide what did or did not happen.’ But Colbert’s other main target was a crowd that seemed just as chilly to his jokes as the president: the media.
‘Over the last five years you [the media] were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew,’ Colbert said.
On a night when the fourth estate traditionally mingles with those members of the other three whose lives they are supposed to be making very difficult, and gets to pretend, for at least one night, that their relationship with the administration is mostly fun and games where everyone goes home happy to be colleagues with each other, the underlying message of Colbert’s routine was that the media was shirking its responsibility by even participating in the event—not to mention by fostering the negative trend the media has taken toward only reporting the least controversial stories, accepting the statements of public figures without question, and acting as if there are always two equally valid sides to every issue.
Colbert inhabits a world in which the facts are whatever you want them to be. When Colbert proclaimed, with a completely straight face, that ‘reality has a well-known liberal bias,’ he wasn’t just cracking a joke in character. He was aiming at those people who honestly think it’s liberal bias in the media for a news show to read aloud the names of fallen soldiers in the war in Iraq, or those who think that it’s liberal bias to seriously ask what the qualifications are of the president’s appointees to high-level offices.
That’s the world Stephen Colbert, the character, wants to live in. And it’s also the world that the current administration, more than any other, has tried very hard to create. In his inaugural episode, Colbert famously coined the word ‘truthiness’ to describe what you know in your gut to be true—’unfiltered by rational argument,’ as he said at the Correspondents Dinner. If the relationship between the media and the government continues in its current path, truthiness could become the new standard by which journalism is measured. And if that happens, Colbert could become the closest thing to a real journalist we have.
Taylor Hudson is a second-year political science major.