Laugh Riot 

Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House press corps dinner threw the gap between the old and new media into stark relief.

In blog time Stephen Colbert's speech at the April 29 White House correspondents dinner is ancient history, though its glory will live forever. By mainstream-media standards Colbert spoke just the other day, but nothing he said was worth reporting.

The AP story on the dinner that both the Tribune and the Sun-Times carried was a model of mainstream-media construction. Reporter Elizabeth White focused on the royalty instead of the rabble--jokes that President Bush told on himself were the news, not what some professional jester said about him. "President Bush and a lookalike, soundalike sidekick poked fun at the president and fellow politicians," White reported. It was "twice the fun" for the audience of journalists and guests.

Ten paragraphs in, White reported perfunctorily on the "featured entertainer," Colbert: "'I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq,' Colbert said in a typical zinger. He also paid mock tribute to Bush as a man who 'believes Wednesday what he believed Monday, despite what happened Tuesday.'"

The Sun-Times trimmed the AP story by editing out Colbert's quotes, reducing him to a passing reference. It was classic MSM thinking: hey, space is tight, and where's the news value in a comedian's quips? But in the blogosphere, where space is infinite and communal wisdom decides what matters, MSM econo-mies garner the contempt Matthew would have been due if his report on the Sermon on the Mount had blown off the beatitudes.

In the days that followed, the Sun-Times, like the Tribune, printed not another word on Colbert--though Sun-Times Washington reporter Lynn Sweet acknowledged him online. When she asserted in her blog that Colbert had disappointed her--"Given the potential material, I expected better"--bloggers' condemnation rained down. "It was the most electric and searing comic performance in a decade. You are insensate inside." And "Come clean, Lynn. America is BEGGING for honest journalism."

To its credit, the Sun-Times slapped together a Colbert package for its Sunday, May 7, Controversy section--an edited text of Colbert's talk ran alongside an essay by TV critic Doug Elfman, who acknowledged the "blogstorm" and suggested a "newsworthy lead" that MSM reporters (like Elizabeth White--and Sweet, for that matter) hadn't been sharp enough to write: "It was perhaps the first time in Bush's tenure that the president was forced to sit and listen to any American cite the litany of criminal and corruption allegations that have piled up against his administration."

In another part of the paper Paige Wiser weighed in with her usual ingenuous acuity, observing that "what should have been an occasion for laughter has become a political hot button, a media frenzy, a national scandal. Nothing has been taken more seriously than this guy's little standup routine. . . . Can't anybody take a joke?"

That media frenzy had produced a new Web site, thankyoustephencolbert.org, a 37 percent jump in ratings for Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, and an announcement on Yahoo's "buzz log" last Sunday that searches for Colbert had jumped 5,625 percent in the previous week and were still "picking up speed." But if you hadn't been online you saw none of it. Stoutly maintaining its obliviousness to Colbert mania right up to the mania's sell-by date, the Tribune produced a Sunday Perspective section that was all about Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics. This was the sort of editor-driven team journalism the Internet remains incapable of, and frankly, I was happy to read about something besides Colbert. Even so, he'd come and gone, and the Tribune had barely noticed. The Week in Review section of the Sunday New York Times was also Colbert free. The Times left Colbert out of its original coverage of the dinner, carried a piece on the blogstorm on May 3, and then forgot about him. Colbert returned to the Times May 8 in its business pages: C-SPAN, which had aired the dinner live and was marketing the DVD for $24.95, was telling other Web sites that had posted the video of the speech to take it down.

If this skirmish between old media and new had spent itself, never was the line between the two so clear. The old offers coverage, the new conversation. The old doesn't like being part of the story and shrinks from characters like Colbert who insist it is. The new--like a colony of ants swarming over a dead wren--can't separate its rapt attention to a story from the story. If the AP had written the story the bloggers were collectively ratifying, it could have begun like this: "Truth was finally spoken to power Saturday night in Washington D.C., humiliating a fitfully laughing audience that consisted of the president of the United States and hundreds of squirming journalists. Power had no comment afterward."

The Opinionator is a New York Times-maintained blog that hailed Colbert as it drew withering fire on the Times itself. "Stephen Colbert's remarks were so scathing," said one contributor, "that none of the sycophants amongst the assembled would have dared to laugh for fear of being demoted or marginalized. The comedic tension he created simply blew the room away. It wasn't a high score on the laff-o-meter he sought. Nope, he had a loftier ambition. (TO TELL THE TRUTH.)"

This comment touched on a crucial point: Colbert didn't leave 'em rolling in the aisles. Which is why, when virtually overnight the Internet exploded, the original subject wasn't truth and power. It was whether Colbert was actually funny.

Did Colbert deliver Swiftian irony or leaden sarcasm? Did a craven press corps laugh less than it should have or as much as Colbert deserved? Was the laughter tepid because the press corps was also the target of Colbert's irony/sarcasm or because it felt embarrassed for President Bush, Colbert's main target, sitting just a few feet away? Was their embarrassment gallant, or did it betray the corps' toady status?

And by the way, why was Antonin Scalia laughing so hard? And George Clooney not laughing at all?

Big questions. Questions ultimately transcended but never settled, not even by the gawker.com poll that saw Colbert's performance called "one of the most patriotic acts I've witnessed of any individual" by 87.9 percent of people who voted and "not really that funny" by the rest.

But they were questions posed by the new media and ignored by the old. This schism may call for another C.P. Snow, a scientist and author who made a career along the last century's cultural fault line. "A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists," he wrote. "Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'"

The law of entropy was founded on the observation that dis-equilibriums resolve themselves. Hot things cool off. Cold things get tepid. Concentrations of energy disperse and diffuse. This Monday the Newspaper Association of America reported that, according to the most recent figures, daily circulation had dropped by another 2.5 percent but visits to the papers' Web sites had climbed by 8 percent. Energy is shifting. A new equilibrium is out there somewhere in the future.

When Washington Post pol-itical reporter Dana Milbank fielded questions online on May 5, most were about Colbert. Except they weren't questions--they were pronouncements. The first had the press sitting idly by as Colbert was "reveal-ing the truth about their complicity with the White House." Another had the Post "and the rest of the White house lap dogs [sweeping] Republican shenanigans under the rug." Milbank tried to give as good as he got, replying that he'd forward the latter complaint "to my colleagues Sue Schmidt, who won the Pulitzer last month for the Abramoff story, and to Dana Priest, who won the Pulitzer for exposing the administration's secret prisons."

Unfortunately, Milbank thought Colbert "wasn't terribly funny." Someone in Chicago set him straight. "It's not whether Colbert was funny or not. . . . It's that either way, nobody in the media reported it. THAT's what's troubling--sound, intelligent dissent going down the memory hole."

As if.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

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