Stephen Colbert's joke is on the press


Did you notice the contrasting media responses to comedian Stephen Colbert's announcement that he plans to get his factually-challenged TV namesake on both the Democratic and Republican ballots for the South Carolina presidential primary? The mainstream Beltway press could barely contain its glee as it cheered the stunt on, lavishing all sorts of media attention on Colbert, and basking in the entertainment industry glow that his act brought to the White House campaign trail.

Did you notice the contrasting media responses to comedian Stephen Colbert's announcement that he plans to get his factually-challenged TV namesake on both the Democratic and Republican ballots for the South Carolina presidential primary? The mainstream Beltway press could barely contain its glee as it cheered the stunt on, lavishing all sorts of media attention on Colbert, and basking in the entertainment industry glow that his act brought to the White House campaign trail.

By contrast, it was mostly left to non-traditional online outlets to strike a skeptical chord; to make the grown-up observation that perhaps this wasn't the best idea. Over at the Huffington Post, Rachel Sklar, a major-league Colbert fan (as am I), wrote that the comedian's candidacy comes at the wrong time:

Now is the time for the fringe players to slip away. Bye-bye, Brownback, so long Kucinich (we predict) and Gravel (we hope). The race is tightening, stakes are getting higher, and the general feeling is that this is where things start to count. The distraction of a spoof candidate -- even the ultimate spoof candidate -- will just get in the way.

And the media website Gawker made a similar point, although with a bit more snark:

Now, we don't want to sound all imperious and shit, and we get the idea, add a little levity to the race, distract the cranky reporters, take everyone down a peg or two. It's good clean fun. But there's a $46 billion war on, we hear. And! Wildfires! Drought! ...We hope [Colbert's] not still making the Sunday morning rounds come primary time. We like our candidates boring, bland, solemn -- and, you know, a smidge electable, because they'll be the ones in charge of killing foreigners and stuff.

Both feared that Colbert would be an unnecessary distraction. Agreed. But the Colbert candidacy becomes a distraction only if the press allows it to. And the sad fact is the press already has allowed it to, because the press literally drives itself to distraction on the campaign trail. That's not an unfortunate side effect of the process. That's the goal.

Think of political press corps as that fat kid from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop. For too many journalists, the lure of the Colbert candidacy is akin to Wonka's river of chocolate, the one that lured the candy-loving Gloop into the deep end and got him stuck inside the tubes. The press already seems to do everything it can to avoid covering campaign substance. Instead, it pursues trivia such as haircuts, and laughs, and cleavage, and parking tickets, and head movements, and marital sleeping habits, and chiseled good looks, and cats, and accents. It's clear that the allure of a saccharine story like Colbert's running gag is simply too tempting.

That's because the press has decided to cover presidential candidates as celebrities, as personalities. This media phenomenon became enshrined during the 2000 contest, when the press announced that presidential campaigns were no longer about how candidates might function as presidents; what they might actually do as commander in chief. Instead, campaigns were about personalities -- which candidate was fun to be around and which one was authentic.

The approach is thriving today. Look at the latest research findings from the campaign trail: "Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election," according to Editor & Publisher magazine. "And just one percent of stories examined the candidates' records or past public performance." (The study in question is here.)

All of which means the Colbert candidacy, as a news story, fits right into the media's personality-driven sweet spot.

The Colbert allure also stems from the fact that too many journalists see themselves as being part of the entertainment business, not in the information business. They relate to Colbert and they want to be part of his yuk-yuk world. They want to blur the lines between news and infotainment. And they want to show everyone that they get the joke.

Why else would NBC's venerable Meet the Press invite Colbert on for an awkward 15-minute interview? (And why else would anchorman Brian Williams be hosting Saturday Night Live on November 3?)

The obvious media reaction to the Colbert candidacy should have been to note it as the book-selling publicity stunt that it was, have a chuckle, and move on. Instead, the press lingered, giving the story way too much attention, and often at the expense of more pressing topics.

For instance, ABC's Nightline found time to cover the Colbert candidacy. Yet Nightline has not found time during the last six weeks to cover the war from Iraq. I'm just sayin'.

At The Washington Post last week, Howard Kurtz twice led his daily online media column with the Colbert story. The Boston Globe editorialized about Colbert's candidacy, announcing it "makes a weird sort of sense." The Chicago Sun-Times editorial page also cheered Colbert. And the South Carolina newspaper The State printed a side-by-side comparison between the stated positions of candidates Colbert and John Edwards.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic contacted nearly half-a-dozen election pros and posted a detailed, 1,700-word breakdown of the possible Colbert effect in South Carolina, assuming the candidate's able to get on the ballot there.

Boosting the significance of Colbert's stunt, The Atlantic reported that "[t]he real threat to the rest of the field is the possibility that Colbert might win a delegate or two (and show up at one or both of the national conventions)." But why? What possible impact would Colbert have on either convention if he showed up with one delegate or two? (And trust me, he's not going to.) He would somehow throw the conventions into chaos? Please. The simple answer is it would be meaningless.

The Atlantic went on to suggest that Colbert's best chance for capturing a Republican delegate would come from the coastal district that stretches from Charleston (Colbert's hometown) to Myrtle Beach, despite the fact it is "heavily conservative." So, conservative Republicans in South Carolina are going to vote for a liberal comedian who mocks conservative ideas on a nightly basis through a thinly veiled impersonation of right-wing talker Bill O'Reilly?

It could happen, according to The Atlantic, because "The district also has a pronounced weakness for political gimmicks. Its congressman, Republican Henry Brown, got elected in 2000 after distributing 20,000 "Oh Henry!" candy bars to boost name recognition." Weak South Carolina voters elected Henry Brown to Congress because he passed out candy bars?

Honestly, sometimes I worry that journalists think voters take elections as un-seriously as the journalists themselves do. For instance, ABC's World News, working hard to pump up interest in the story, reported Colbert might "appeal to those who find politics a theater of the absurd." I'd suggest that South Carolinians who are committed to participating in the state's upcoming primary (i.e. voters who take their politics most seriously) are not going to vote on a comedian executing a joke.

In fact, when one of Colbert's staffers contacted the owner of a South Carolina beauty salon, which had been featured in the press as being a hotbed of local political discussion, and asked if Colbert could visit the salon in advance of the primary, the owner was emphatic: No. "This is a serious issue for us," she told the producer.

The salon owner thinks elections are serious business. Colbert does not. And that's fine; he's a comedian. So what's the media's excuse?

Meanwhile, ABC News online posted a detailed investigation into the federal campaign fundraising implications of Colbert's faux run, as did Politico in a lengthy piece, which was the featured article at the outlet's website on October 26. Picking up on that thread, The New York Times editorial board blog, after cheering on the Colbert candidacy ("a stroke of comic genius"), examined its legal implications:

If a television personality who is not a comedian were to run for President, it could be a serious candidacy (and we can think of a few we'd be seriously worried about), using the exposure given to him by his television network to campaign and win votes. [Emphasis added.]

Since Colbert clearly is a comedian, what exactly was the point of The New York Times highlighting campaign rules that don't apply to Colbert's PR stunt? Here's a hint: The Times blog urged Colbert to keep his campaign going "for the sheer fun of it." It's true, the press loves to have fun on the campaign trail. As one Chicago Tribune reporter assured CNN, "Everybody is going to cover Stephen Colbert to a certain extent, because it's going to be fun."

But what about news consumers? After another writer at The Atlantic dissected the possible electoral implications of the Colbert run, suggesting the key voting block for Colbert would be "liberal young Republicans" (do they even exist?), one online commenter beseeched:

Seriously. Please stop. Please tell your friends in the [mainstream media] to stop. Real news should stay real news and fake news should stay on Comedy Central. just freaking me the hell out and seriously wondering if you all are engaging in pharmaceuticals.

But they can't stop. Partly because they don't want to (the story is fun), and partly because news corporations have built these enormous news-gathering machines around this never-ending presidential campaign; a campaign that, day in and day out, produces very little actual news. But the machines must be fed, and what's easier (and more fun!) to feed it than Colbert stories?

Still, journalists strain to justify the attention Colbert receives. From

Yes, we know that Colbert's bid is satire and nothing more. But anyone who follows politics as closely as we do knows that it even serious politics often devolves into theater of the absurd. So why shouldn't Colbert be another actor in the real 2008 race?

Again, when campaigns descend into the absurd it's usually because the press drives them there. (Did we mention the great Cleavage Debate of 2007?) And why shouldn't Colbert be another actor in the 2008 presidential race? Because he's a comedian pretending to be a candidate.

That fact doesn't seem to matter. Howard Kurtz at the The Washington Post wrote: "Holy cow! Stephen Colbert is surging. He's on fire. Truthiness rules! In a new poll, he's at 2.3 percent in the Democratic primary. Before you scoff, that's 0.4 percent behind Joe Biden but ahead of Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel." What Kurtz left unsaid was the fact that Colbert's 2.3 percent easily fell within the poll's hefty margin of error (5 percent), which meant the findings were statistically irrelevant.

Colbert's race did momentarily seem to gain newsworthiness last week when a Rasmussen poll showed the Comedy Central host grabbing an impressive 13 percent when positioned as an independent candidate. (Even though Colbert claims he's not going to try to run as an independent.)

None of the news reports I saw about the polling results mentioned it, but what exactly is the point of conducting a national poll since Colbert is only trying to get on the ballot in one state? Meaning, of the 1,200 people Rasmussen polled, it's likely that, based on census data, maybe 10 or 20 of the respondents were actually from South Carolina. It's like running a national poll on who Americans would prefer to be the next senator from New York; it's perfectly pointless exercise except, of course, that in the case of Colbert it's fun and entertaining.

Nonetheless, on October 29, Good Morning America host Diane Sawyer, in an apparent reference to the Rasmussen poll, suggested that, "If [Colbert] keeps gaining at the rate he's gaining, by the end of November he could be the leading candidate." [Emphasis added]

Question: In the history of modern-day American presidential campaigns, has a new candidate ever entered the race polling at roughly 10 percent and then proceeded to pick up an additional 10 percent each week for four weeks running? Ever? Why would anybody suggest that a late-night comedian might be able to accomplish what no other candidate has ever done in American politics? What would prompt somebody to suggest that Colbert, by next month, might soon be garnering 40 percent and be the leading candidate for president?

Answer: Because it's fun.

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