What does it say about the current state of the mainstream media when our most prominent truth-tellers are comedians?
It's been a serendipitous day. First, the college buddy I'm staying with in Connecticut got All the President's Men in the mail from Netflix. Alan Pakula's influential 1976 film (based on the book) profiled Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's hard-working journalistic muckraking (sans internet, cell phones, or computers in general), which uncovered Watergate and eventually led to President Nixon's impeachment in 1974. The film is a love-letter to old-fashioned investigative journalism, and to the positive power of the press. As exemplified by Woodward and Bernstein, the media exists as another level of checks and balances, designed to keep a power-hungry administration from ignoring its constituents, and indeed, the law.
A few minutes after the film ended, I opened up my laptop and found myself watching Steven Colbert's utterly scathing speech at the White House Correspondent's dinner, which he had given mere hours earlier. Although I'm posting this the very night of Colbert's speech, by the time you read this, you'll probably already have seen his coruscating routine. If not, here is a transcription, and here is the video.
There's so much more to say about Colbert's speech, which is not only career-defining for him, but is also a watershed moment in New Media vs. Old Media. Well, maybe "watershed" is overstating things. How about a "water closet" moment? Regardless, the mainstream press has already downplayed his speech, which demonstrates the very timidity of the press that Colbert lambasted. Yet the living web will not let it die--and Colbert knew this. He was aware that his routine--delivered at a specialized members-only event and televised by the ratings-weakling C-SPAN--would be picked up and "syndicated" by the internet's social bookmarking sites, blogosphere (ahem), and e-mailers. No big deal, right? Well, had Dubya's father been openly mocked at a press event by a Colbert predecessor (say, Al Franken), the buck would have stopped there (a phrase which is in fact itself a presidential term). A newspaper or two might have mentioned it, but that's a far cry from being able to actually watch the speech, and more importantly, share it.
Colbert knew this would happen. He knew that the power of one performance could accomplish more than anything he could do on his own show (the viewership of which will now skyrocket), and more than anything he could say in an editorial in any newspaper, magazine, or other form of Old Media. And someone was foolish (or brilliant) enough to give him that very stage. If Americans see the straining and helpless look of discomfort on Bush's face upon getting so openly mocked, Colbert may manage to call to fore the elephant in the room and the utter ridiculousness of the times we live in, through a mere act of comedy.
Normally I'm opposed to writing "pun intended," because it seems like a stupid practice--if the reader gets it, they get it, and if not, it's a throwaway anyway. Few plays on words warrant their own neon sign advertising their oh-so-clever existence. But damnit, when I said "elephant in the room," it could have either meant, "we're living with one of the worst presidents in history yet much of the mainstream press and a third of our country sits back and passively approves of him," or it could have meant, "Bush, whose political party symbol is an elephant, was physically in the room while Colbert was lampooning him." And this was the best part of Colbert's performance--he ripped the most powerful man in the world, to his face! And while I may despise our current administration, I'm not an impractical America hater--if someone tried this routine in most of the rest of the world, they wouldn't be able to comfortably return to their regularly-scheduled TV show the following week. They probably wouldn't be allowed to return to their regularly-scheduled life.
There's a bumper sticker out there that reads, "No one died when Clinton lied." In this case I'd like to add, "No one died when Nixon lied." And both of those presidents were almost impeached (Nixon, or course, had to resign to avoid it). There's a big difference between Watergate and the not-even-elected-presidency-of-Bushgate, but in terms of calling out a corrupt administration (and in light of having just watched All the President's Men), it certainly says something about the state of the mainstream media when our modern-day Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.