Colbert, Brisbane Demonstrate Shifts in Political Journalism

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

While we were all away for Winter Term, two interesting chains of events unfolded in the world of political journalism, both of which portend seismic shifts in the way we communicate about politics. Like the rest of our generation, many Obies followed Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert’s short-lived presidential run, which Colbert used as a way to highlight and ridicule the transparent corruption of so-called Super PACs. In a series of on-air performances aided by former federal elections official Trevor Potter, Colbert handed control of his own Super PAC (basically a legalized money-laundering ring for unlimited political donations) to Daily Show host Jon Stewart, while taking care to not violate the law by explicitly “coordinating” with Stewart about the group’s activities.

Meanwhile, on the more “serious” end of the media spectrum, New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane wrote a post on the Times website on Jan. 12 titled “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” The question for his readers was whether they wanted the Times to be more aggressive in fact-checking statements by public officials — and as he later recounted, the responses overwhelmingly ranged from “yes,” to “yes, you moron,” to incredulity that this was ever a question in the first place.

With the Internet increasingly undermining their privileged status as arbiters of the information flow between political actors and the public (not to mention undermining their paychecks), traditional journalists like Brisbane are caught between a rock and a hard place. In order to maintain their audience’s attention, they portray themselves as shrewd insiders with indispensable knowledge of public affairs; conversely, to maintain their relationships with a broad range of public officials, they portray themselves as painstakingly neutral and non-confrontational, often to the point of deliberate naïveté. (New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen has respectively dubbed these trends the “Church of Savvy” and the “Quest for Innocence.”) As a result of such often conflicting biases, professional journalists have become slaves to the golden mean fallacy, so desperate for broad approval from both the public and political elites that they often sacrifice honesty and rigorous analysis in the quest to seem like wizened, middle-of-the-road sages.

The most important distinction between such coverage and that of Stewart and Colbert is the comedians’ easy ability to describe aspects of modern American politics as just plain absurd, a sentiment shared by many in the public and yet typically absent from the mainstream media. While the notion of regular news coverage on a comedy network is itself an oblique accusation of absurdity, both men still take pains to emphasize that the absurdity of our public discourse is central to their serious message. On Jan. 23, Stewart described moderator John King’s evasive response to Newt Gingrich at the Jan. 19 Republican debate as a sign that “we’re through the looking glass,” and at his Jan. 20 rally in South Carolina, Colbert summed up the entire foray into Super PAC corruption by declaring, “if that is a joke, then … our entire campaign finance system is a joke!”

Comedians’ traditional critique on public affairs is grounded in innocence: I may be just another ordinary bloke, but I can still see that this is ridiculous. But while comedians riffing on politics usually take pains to connect with their audiences by coming across as casual everyman observers, Stewart and Colbert are instead striving to portray politics as absurd from a position of relative savvy. By engaging in lengthy on-air policy discussions with figures like Senator Jim DeMint and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, by enlisting the help of insiders like Potter in their attempts to raise public awareness through humor, they offer a more wonkish yet more compelling critique: We’ve done our homework, taken some time to figure this stuff out and we still think it’s ridiculous, and here’s why.

Whether or not mainstream outlets like the Times should use their own savvy to point out the absurdities of modern political life is what Brisbane was really asking with his poorly worded question about “truth vigilantes.” He defended himself in the subsequent firestorm of criticism by pointing out that one of his examples — the claim that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when failing to report his wife’s paid advocacy for the right-wing Heritage Foundation — wasn’t such a clear-cut falsehood as people might think, because who could look into Thomas’ mind and determine for certain what he did or didn’t understand? But deliberate uncertainty as to whether he’s a transparently biased liar, or merely a Supreme Court Justice who can’t comprehend legal fine print, shouldn’t prevent the Times from characterizing both possibilities as completely, utterly absurd.

Journalists’ reluctance to take this step is understandable; after all, those who cast such aspersions on entire political or social institutions in ordinary times are marginalized as wild-eyed radicals and generally ignored. But just as the printing press allowed Reformation-era Europeans to communicate religious and political ideas that were once easily censored, so too is the rise of digital communication allowing people to bypass the media filter in connecting both with public officials and with each other (a trend Rosen calls “audience atomization overcome”). The emerging consensus, shared by popular movements from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, is that the byzantine rituals of Washington, D.C. are ridiculous and out of touch on a level reminiscent of the pre-Revolutionary French royal court at Versailles.

If the excesses of the former prompt an outpouring of popular rage at all similar to the one that erupted over the excesses of the latter, establishment media courtiers would be well advised to start scrambling for a new tone of coverage, because Stewart and Colbert will only be the tip of the iceberg.