BOB GARFIELD: At last weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner, the emcee was Comedy Central's Steven Colbert. A political satirist and a media satirist in one irony-dripping package, he should have been the ideal candidate for speaking truth-iness to power�iness. But Colbert had a rough night.
STEPHEN COLBERT: I stand by this man because he stands for things � not only for things � he stands on things. [SUBDUED AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently-flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully-staged photo ops in the world. [SUBDUED AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm like ouch! To a comedian, awkward tittering is a gruesome sound, but such is the price of flouting the rules. The White House Correspondents' Dinner, like the Gridiron Show and the Salute to Congress Gala, are opportunities for the press and Washington big shots to mingle together in a social setting, rubbing shoulders but never, ever to the point of chafing. And much of Colbert's material rubbed the subject raw.
STEPHEN COLBERT: The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. [SUBDUED AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
STEPHEN COLBERT: I believe that government that governs best is the government that governs least, and by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.
STEPHEN COLBERT: We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] And reality has a well-known liberal bias. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: The Washington Post gossip column grumbled that Colbert, quote, "ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor � make fun of yourself, not the other guy." Columnist Richard Cohen said Colbert was more than rude, he was a bully, and the first lady, it was reported, refused to shake Colbert's hand. Well, can you blame her? The Correspondents' Dinner is essentially a roast, the unwritten rules of which permit you to tweak the guest of honor without genuinely embarrassing or insulting him. What wife wants to squeeze a ball gown on just to witness her husband's public evisceration? So, yeah, the guest of honor got more than he bargained for, and so did the media hosts. Colbert was in his faux Bill O'Riley mode when he said -
STEPHEN COLBERT: I have nothing but contempt for these people.
BOB GARFIELD: But he wasn't necessarily joking. Again and again, he bashed the Washington press corps for five years of deference and docility, and again and again the crowd did not seem much amused.
STEPHEN COLBERT: But listen. Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions. He's the decider. [SUBDUED AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home.
BOB GARFIELD: What is the sound of 2,700 people not applauding? From a timing and composure point of view, Colbert was clearly off his stride. How much of this was his material and how much the discomfort of the audience is impossible to measure. Either way, he was asking for discomfort by so indelicately going for blood. But the question shouldn't be, why was Stephen Colbert so rude. The question should be why is the press gathering to toast a sitting politician in the first place, socializing with the government officials they're supposed to be covering. How can you sit there in your formal wear over boeuf and cabernet and maintain an arms-length distance from the person less than an arm's length away from you? The problem with the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday was not the master of ceremonies, it was the ceremony itself. Democracy requires a vigilant press. It doesn't much need the Friars Club. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited � by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anni Katz and Mark Phillips. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG] (FUNDING CREDITS)