On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert hosted, among other guests, a stuffed puppet. And, no, that’s not a euphemism.
The doll in question? Bert. As in Bert-and-Ernie Bert. Yes, from Sesame Street. The occasion? Stephen Colbert was on the show.
Which nearly says it all. Colbert’s mere presence—and these days he seems to be, uh, everywhert—has encouraged all manner of Ironic Inanity when it comes to the media; though much of it still amuses, little surprises anymore. The mock-pundit has coaxed poet laureate Robert Pinsky to judge a “Meta-Free-Phor-All” between Colbert and Sean Penn; Richard Holbrooke to broker an on-air “truce” between Colbert and Willie Nelson (the “fight” had been over whose Ben & Jerry’s namesake-flavor was tastier); George Lucas to fight in a mock light-saber duel; Henry Kissinger to judge an on-air guitar-riffing contest; and Rep. Robert Wexler (running uncontested for Florida’s 19th district) to joke, on the air, about enjoying cocaine and prostitutes “because it’s a fun thing to do.” Why shouldn’t “the Bruce Lee of punditry” get NBC’s Washington bureau chief to frame an interview around one half of Sesame Street’s ambiguously fey duo?
Colbert, in his ascent to becoming modern media’s “Great Communicator,” has also become a kind of mock-media Midas: most everything he touches turns to (ratings/sales/pageview) gold. Yet to benefit from the renowned “Colbert Bump,” you pretty much have to become Colbert’s chump. The Bert doll guested on Meet the Press, for example, because Tim Russert was trying to spar with Colbert by castigating the Frenchiness of Colbert’s surname. “Why not,” Russert asked, hoisting the Bert doll, “call him BAIR?” The bit—Russert trying to mock-mock the mock-pundit (using a mock-muppet, no less)—was, to be frank, incredibly awkward. Or, as Colbert might call it, “mockward.”
Russert, of course, as do his fellow MSMers, has a vested interest in rubbing elbows and matching wits with Colbert. A sense of humor is a valuable commodity in today’s rhetorical marketplace; journalists want to prove that they, you know, have one. And Colbert is pretty much the Hummer of humor-proving vehicles. Playing the Colbert Card allows journalists in the institution’s echelons—the Sunday shows, the op-ed pages—to address the familiar charge of media elitism not by countering it, but by mocking it. (See ‘Dowd, Maureen,’ at whose behest Colbert wrote, “As I type this, she’s watching from an overstuffed divan, petting her prize Abyssinian and sipping a Dirty Cosmotinijito.”) As David Carr noted in a Times analysis of the Meet the Press segment, Colbert’s presence on MTP’s “hallowed ground” showed that Russert “could not only take a joke, but also that he was in on it, and could create a spicy point of entry for a demographic that network news almost never touches—anyone under 50.” In other words, through taking on the fake journalist, the real journalist was showing that he Gets It—which also gets his brand to appeal, ostensibly, to a younger, hipper, and ultimately wider audience than the staid Sunday show normally enjoys.
So, great. Well done, Mr. Russert-and-production-staff. Except that the Carr assessment leaves out one key factor of the Colbert/Russert equation: that, when conventional MSMers traffic in Colbert’s particular brand of mainstreaminess, the “media” component suffers. Irony and journalism, in general, make uncomfortable bedfellows; irony relies on a disparity of information to be effective, and journalists, more than anything, need to be reliable sources of information for audiences. Colbert is to truthiness what Russert, we expect, is to truth; Colbert’s treatment of the journalist thwarted that analogy. Russert—whose “Sunday morning eminence,” as Carr points out, depends on “his ability to convey regular-guy gravitas and eyebrow-borne skepticism while demonstrating a mastery of political matters”—all but lost himself in Colbert’s rhetorical hall of mirrors. He became irony’s victim rather than its master. To wit: Russert, referring to the New York Post-tastic headline announcing Colbert’s presidential run—“Electile Dysfunction”—asked Colbert, “Are they questioning, shall we say, your stamina?” (No, Tim, no—too far! I don’t think they make an emoticon to indicate “cringing in horror,” but if they did, I’d put one here: ___.)