Editorial: Telling the Emperor He’s Naked

By Becky O’Malley
Friday May 05, 2006

The big story in media circles this week was Steven Colbert’s skewering the Washington press establishment (and incidentally G.W. Bush & Co.) over dinner on Saturday night. It will be interesting for future journalism scholars to study how the news of his thinly disguised attack on the administration and its tepid critics rolled across the country on the Internet after it was originally ignored by the big media. Evidently C-Span viewers who were watching on Saturday night caught it first, and some of them posted the video clips on the Internet, using magic technology which I don’t begin to understand. The only person I know who is glued to C-Span is my 91-year-old mother, who watches it the way some men watch ESPN and for some of the same reasons, and even she missed it.  

By Monday morning the net junkies in the Daily Planet newsroom were talking about it, and people in the office were attempting to watch it on our ancient OS 9 Macs, which proved impossible. We watched it on our PCs at home that night. By Tuesday my mother had heard about it and was insisting that she had to see it. Since she’s not online we brought her over to our house on Wednesday for a personal viewing of the tape on the YouTube.com website, where people can upload their homemade videos. I had dinner on Wednesday night with three friends, two of them working lawyers, none of whom had heard about it, all of whom rushed home to get it up immediately on their PCs. Google News on Thursday reported that YouTube has pulled the clip at the behest of C-Span, which claims copyright, but I’m sure you can still find it somewhere on the Internet.  

What’s most interesting about the story is that the standard media, especially the New York Times, didn’t even cover the Colbert act in their news reports on the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner. And now the ponderous print press is opining that it thinks Colbert wasn’t funny anyhow, so there. “Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude,” says Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, after establishing his own credentials as a critic—that he was considered quite a card in grade school.  

Funny was not the point, guys. Lots of people can be funny. What Colbert did was much more difficult and dangerous. He used his entrée as a comedian as the means for telling Bush to his face what his advisors are surely not telling him. Bush is proud of the fact that he seldom reads the papers, seldom watches TV news.  

Some reports of the Colbert act have pointed out that media luminaries have lately been telling some of the truth about what’s going on in this country, and, to be fair, they have. But exactly who thinks that anyone in the administration right up to the very top has picked up the New Yorker to read Rick Hertzberg’s excellent series of mea culpas for letting his publication endorse the Iraq invasion, or Seymour Hersh’s chilling prediction of an Iran invasion? Or perhaps Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books on Abu Ghraib? Not bloody likely. 

We’ve all heard the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes when we were growing up. It took a little boy to reveal that the “finely woven invisible suit” that the emperor thought he was wearing didn’t exist. Shakespeare’s plays are full of fools who use their position to tell powerful people what’s going on with impunity. It’s a time-honored technique, and the point is not the comedy but the truth-telling. Colbert’s pose as an effete, foolish and powerless newsie was the perfect way to position himself to tell Bush, his lying entourage and his media syncophants, metaphorically of course, that they’d come to dinner in their birthday suits. And no, a big blast of rib-splitting Borscht Belt bathroom humor a la Bob Hope or even Al Franken wouldn’t have had the same effect. What made Colbert’s performance so effective was the high ratio of criticism to comedy, steely rapier thrusts greased by a thin veneer of irony.  

Was he rude? Perhaps. Telling the truth is sometimes considered rude. And it’s dangerous. Legendary jazz singer Eartha Kitt didn’t work in the United States for 10 years after she “rudely” spoke out against the Vietnam War at a Ladybird Johnson White House luncheon in 1968. By that act of courage she sustained many of us out in the hinterlands who were beginning to tire in our efforts to stop the war, but she paid a heavy price.  

Could the same thing happen to Steven Colbert these days? Probably not, but a lot of things which we might have said 10 years ago couldn’t happen anymore are happening today. Watch’yer back, Steve.