Mock the Vote

Colbert’s campaign and the media: “Together, I am going to change the world”

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: ___.)

Colbert’s Paulsenesque presidential “announcement”—and the resulting media blitz that considered the run’s legality and potential illegality and polling numbers and Facebook popularity and political ramifications, rendering Colbert “arguably the most talked-about presidential candidate out there”—is only the latest incarnation of the Stephen-and-the-press-sitting-in-a-tree phenomenon. (Indeed, “among journalists, Colbert’s story has spawned more calls to the state’s Democratic party than the primary’s possible date change to January 26,” Joe Werner, the Dems’ South Carolina executive director, told Beaufort’s Gazette after the pundit’s announcement that he’d be running in—and only in—the state. “I guess Stephen has trumped us.”) The media have dubbed Colbert everything from a “swaggering nerd” to a “beloved blowhard” to a “modern-day amalgam of spirits Pirandello and Voltaire.” (One hopes the author of this last one, the LA Times’s David Cotner, is indulging in some Colbertian meta-irony; one suspects, however, that he’s simply drunk the Col-Aid.) And those are only some of the more recent odes. In the two-years-and-change since The Colbert Report debuted, People has named Colbert one of its Sexiest Men Alive; GQ has named him one of its Men of the Year; TIME has named him one of its 100 most influential people. When Colbert broke his wrist earlier this summer, Vanity Fair noted, the news wires ran breaking stories about his injury.

The adoration Colbert has received from the public at large makes perfect sense; his “truthiness” has been dubbed a defining concept of our age, and Colbert himself seems a fitting ambassador for a cultural moment in which Satire, Sarcasm and Snark reign supreme. On top of which, the guy’s hilarious.

But the adulation from the media, in particular, is surprising. After all, Colbert is mocking us. He’s a political critic, sure, but he’s also, and more so, a media critic. (That’s what makes Colbert’s “run for office” so brilliant: it expands the field of his satire specifically into the realm of politics. Colbert is now both a faux-journalist and a faux-politician; he’s now an equal-opportunity mocker.) Remember the speech Colbert gave at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last year? The press coverage it received focused on Colbert’s criticism of the Bush administration, but Colbert was just as harsh on the media:

Here’s how it works: 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. Just put ’em 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!

Colbert has, according to Vanity Fair, compared the press to a “lamprey that latches onto a subject and just sucks and sucks and sucks until your brain and your soul is as dry as a crouton.” During his Meet the Press interview, he told Russert, “I’m a member of the media—and I don’t trust us.” Colbert has leveled many of these criticisms in character, as a die-hard conservative, deriding in particular the news outlets he views as “liberal.” (He visibly shudders at the mere sight of a copy of The New York Times, claims “NPR” stands for both “Nancy Pelosi Radio” and “Nazi-Palestinian Radio,” etc.). Colbert is mocking, in particular, the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the world, satirizing their egocentric worldviews and their baffling ability to put the ‘me’ in ‘media.’ Yet his character is, at its core, an amplification of the criticisms leveled at the press—as a general body—of being [fill in clichéd negative stereotype here]. James Poniewozik summed it up in TIME magazine last year: “Colbert is…spoofing the general trend in news to pander to emotion, to value graphics over thinking, gut over brain.” He’s mocking the mediocrity of the mediacracy.

And—the juiciest, truthiest Colbertian irony of all—we in the media love him for it. We thank him for it. It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome for a media environment defined both by saturation and satire: Colbert derides us, and we eat it up. We ask for more. And we dub our abuser modern media’s “favorite fake pundit.”

Call it meanness envy. Colbert, after all, has a power the MSM doesn’t: he can criticize politicians—and the media itself—with virtual impunity. Colbert’s most famous line from the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech—“reality has a well-known liberal bias”—is almost a rallying cry for many in the media. Yet most reporters would never write, let alone imply, such a thing for fear of justifying the familiar cliché of the “liberal media.” Colbert can speak truth to power in a way the MSM cannot; what most in the MSM either can’t or won’t say, Colbert shouts through the megaphone of satirical implication. “We claim no respectability,” Colbert told Maureen Dowd in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview. “There’s no status I would not surrender for a joke. So we don’t have to defend anything.” Colbert, even more so than Jon Stewart and his straight-man schtick, enjoys satire’s safety net: it’s not Stephen Colbert who’s making the mischief, but a fictional character who happens to share that name. (Indeed, media treatments of Colbert, particularly the long treatises in Vanity Fair, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, and the like—go out of their way to point out the nearly clichéd niceness of Colbert-the-guy: Sunday school teacher, devoted husband and father, wearer of rumpled khakis and Merrell sport clogs.) Colbert-the-pundit is a fiction; and you can’t retaliate against something that doesn’t exist.

As for Campaigniness ’08, it’ll be interesting to see how far Colbert takes the “run”—and how far the media will go in running along with him. Thus far, he seems to be going out of his way to make clear that it’s a joke. (At a book-signing event in New York this week, Colbert responded to the crowd’s cheering of his dual-ticket run: “I hope you all enjoy losing twice,” he said.) Still, as Colbert writes in I Am America (And So Can You!), “It is time to impregnate this country with my mind.” With the media’s help, he seems to be doing just that.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.