Virtually overnight, Stephen Colbert became a hero to countless Americans, following his April 30 performance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
Since then, millions of people have either watched the video or read the transcript of his skewering of both the president and the press corps, and have discussed it avidly. Tens of thousands of people have gone to the website ThankYouStephenColbert.com and written letters of appreciation. Talk about water-cooler chatter; the event crashed internet servers across the land. It truly was one of those moments of media shock and delight.
And then, an odd but revealing thing happened. Some of the chattering class commentators, mainstream media writers and columnists, and Democratic officials didn't get it: Not very funny, rude, not respectful of the president, and so on. Are they kidding? How could they not understand they were witnessing one of the bravest, most subversive performances in memory, which thrilled and gave hope to untold viewers and readers, and will be a huge marker when people look back on the Bush era?
Colbert's speech had a huge impact for two reasons: First, he spoke truth to power right to the face of the president, in front of the entire news media. No one could miss, sidestep or deny it. It wasn't a scene from a movie, book or talk show -- it was live. It reminded me of Edward R. Murrow's famous address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (recently depicted in the film "Good Night and Good Luck"). It gave me goose bumps. Colbert's performance shamed every Democrat or columnist who has been too afraid, too timid, or just too worried about losing his or her own power and access to go out on a limb and tell the truth that this administration is a disaster beyond our wildest nightmares. Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rove have gotten away with murder … and worse. And many of the people in that room that night who squirmed in their seats -- it was in part because of the internal indictment they were feeling for not doing what they should have done, countless times, long before. Maybe now they will do the right thing, but I won't be holding my breath.
The second reason Colbert made such a huge splash is the rapid advance of video on the web. Almost overnight, the media world has irrevocably changed as video is increasingly becoming as important as print and still images on the web. When, in a matter of hours, dozens of websites can post or link to a video and get the word out about a spectacular event, the role of the gatekeepers and the corporate media shrinks big-time. And it doesn't matter if the networks or CNN or Fox decides that they don't want you to see it -- they can't stop it. The people's network is now in working order. Progressives now have a television capacity; still rudimentary, perhaps, but powerfully effective.
The press leaks
The press coverage of the Colbert performance was illuminating, as reported by the popular blog, democratic underground:
"Expect nothing less from the cowardly American media. This demonstrates powerfully the ability of the media to choose the news, and to decide when and how to shield Bush from negative publicity. Sins of omission can be just as bad as sins of commission.
"The AP's first stab at it, as well as Reuters and the Chicago Tribune, tell us everything we need to know: In these reports, Colbert's performance is sidestepped and marginalized, while President Bush is depicted as lighthearted, humble and witty."
Salon's Joan Walsh points out, "Colbert's deadly performance did more than reveal, with devastating clarity, how Bush's well-oiled myth machine works. It exposed the mainstream press' pathetic collusion with an administration that has treated it -- and the truth -- with contempt from the moment it took office. Intimidated, coddled, fearful of violating propriety, the press corps that for years dutifully repeated Bush talking points was stunned and horrified when someone dared to reveal that the media emperor had no clothes. Colbert refused to play his dutiful, toothless part in the White House correspondents' dinner -- an incestuous, backslapping ritual that should be retired. For that, he had to be marginalized. Voilà: 'He wasn't funny.'"
On the Democratic political front, as John Aravosis wrote on AmericaBlog, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., actually stepped up to defend President Bush, saying, according to The Hill:
"I thought some of it was funny, but I think it got a little rough … He is the president of the United States, and he deserves some respect."
"I'm certainly not a defender of the administration," Hoyer reassured stunned observers, but Colbert "crossed the line" with many jokes that were "in bad taste."
Criticizing Colbert for being rude would be pretty funny if it weren't so depressing. Rude? Since when has politics in this administration used the Marquis of Queensbury rules? Is Dick Cheney sweet and accommodating? When, in their march to power, has the right wing had good manners -- about abortion or gay marriage, or in the push for invading Iraq? Sure, mention decorum and one thinks immediately of Karl Rove, of Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, of Jerry Falwell blaming America's bad morals for 9/11.
The fact is, Stephen Colbert is at the acme of rising independent voices -- in the blogosphere, on the internet, in publishing and independent filmmaking -- who are being aggressive and playing hardball the way the right does. And guess what? The establishment is getting nervous. The powers-that-be know that people respond to passion, anger and resistance, emotions that convey meaning and seriousness, and the will to fight hard for important issues.
In a smaller way, but showing similar guts, Cindy Sheehan spoke truth by traveling to Texas and demanding that the president explain, please, just what "noble cause" her son died for. Ray McGovern did it recently when he publicly challenged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Atlanta, and so did Harry Taylor, the man who confronted George W. Bush at a town meeting in North Carolina.
Perhaps the most important lesson we have learned from the divisions laid bare by Stephen Colbert is that the big split isn't so much between Democrats and Republicans or between the media and the people and events they cover, but rather between the powerful and the angry, between those basking in power and those fighting for change. The kiss-ass media, the revolving-door congressmen, the sycophant lobbyists and congressional staffers, the greedy media consultants -- all are dependent on and addicted to the trappings of power, whether it's their next book, TV appearance, consulting contract, ride on Air Force One or junket to play golf at St. Andrews. Stephen Colbert turned the heat up on them all:
… let's review the rules. Here's how it works: The president makes the decisions; he's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people, the press, type those decisions down. Make, announce, check. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kickin' around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know: fiction!
It's getting hotter in the kitchen, and some of those who have the most to hide are getting closer to a meltdown.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.