“Taking Colbert Seriously: Faux News Man Issues Faux Apology for Real News

Curator's Note

This April 26 segment of The Colbert Report (CR) reflects a shift in patterns of news reporting and "status" of "fake news." On February 12, 2007, Colbert devoted ‘The Word’ to a story buried or unreported by almost all other news: a Defense Department report that evidences Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith’s "pre-war report fabricating a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda…" which Colbert further describes as "manipulated intelligence." In April, NPR replayed Stephen Colbert’s report on Feith. Feith then demanded a correction from NPR. Colbert is thus forced to "apologize" as we see in this clip: "I’m sorry. Feith is right. I did say ‘manipulated’ when I should have said quote ‘produced alternative intelligence assessments’ in a manner that was quote ‘inappropriate.’ Huge difference!" What are some salient observations of "fake news" recognized as legitimate or influential enough to warrant correction? (1) The Daily Show (TDS) and The Colbert Report offer more than humorous relief: these court jesters speak truth to power in forms that bite both politicians and media. (2) Claims about media effects and social science remain problematic: You can either cite the recent stat that viewers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report rank number 1 in the "best informed American public (Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times, April 16 2007) or—if worried we’re laughing our way into doomsday—you can cite the questionable 2006 study on the so-called ‘Daily Show Effect’ by two academics which claims that TDS breeds cynicism and lowers young voters’ “trust in national leaders." (3) Without question, the sociable web is a place where counterpublics flourish and disseminate ideas that trickle up and across viral nature of the networks with effectiveness where we least expect it. Despite all shortcomings of our intermediaries Colbert and Stewart, one must admit they aim at more than the laugh: political satire has reached new heights in this age of repression, influencing news makers and striving—unlike much of the press—to hold officials accountable. — See Crooks and Liars February 13 2007 for Colbert segment on Feith. — See www.meganboler.net for more on satire, dissent, and current three-year research on "Rethinking Media and Democracy."


Jason Mittell's picture

One thing I find fascinating

One thing I find fascinating about this clip & the Colbert phenomenon itself is that audience comprehension is predicated not only on knowledge of current affairs, but an awareness of the mechanics of media representation & production themselves. Colbert addresses the audience at a meta-level of media commentary - it’s not just that we know who Feith is, but we understand the media’s complicity in allowing the administration to set the own vocabulary for its representation. So it’s not a choice between “the audience is better informed” and “the audience is cynical” - it’s both working together to be better informed through cynical engagement with media & political systems, a mode of creative media literacy fostered through the show’s endorsement of remix culture and audience participation.

[...] Here’s a thoughtful

[…] Here’s a thoughtful essay on fake news and its discontents. This essay is part of an innovative media studies blog–in media res–that you might find of some interest. I’ve got an essay appearing sometime next week–stay tuned. […]

I also would be interested

I also would be interested to note when faux news show such as Colbert are actually “taken seriously.” To be fair, this isn’t one of them.

Colbert isn’t “taken seriously,” at least, not by Feith. Following the timeline, Colbert’s “misstatement” runs dangerously close to accusing Feith of treason, NPR rebroadcasts Colbert’s statements as news, then Feith goes after NPR for the rebroadcast – not after Colbert for the misstatement. It is apparently only when Colbert’s statements are taken up by a “real” news program that they become dignified as accusations by Feith. Colbert’s statement is humor, NPR’s restatement is political, and thus warrants correction. This implicitly trivializes the humorous political text in favor of some sort of bona fide text. Reactions such as Feith’s call into question whether or not Colbert, as court jester, can “speak truth to power;” is power listening? Do those ostensibly in-power take humor seriously? What happens if they don’t?

Anton C. Zijderveld (1982) notes that perhaps court jesters only reify the power of the monarch. He argues that the ridicule of court jesters is infrequent, usually shallow, and depends ultimately on the sanction of the monarch. This makes any power exercised by the jester parasitical to that of the throne:

“The real point was that the monarch, by allowing his fool this kind of impudence, demonstrated in a rather painful manner how utterly powerless the rest of the court actually was. The fool, solidly and solitarily tied to the throne, was allowed to show off his politically innocent, parasitical power in order to demonstrate, as in a reversed, looking-glass manner, how utterly powerless everybody else outside the dyad of king and fool really was. To make things worse, king and jester would at times even swap roles, while everybody present was obliged to laugh heartily about all this folly. They were, of course, obliged to laugh about their own powerlessness!” (120).

If correct (and I certainly hope he’s not), Zijderveld’s characterization severely limits what Colbert can hope to accomplish, and what we as consumers of media and political agents can do. By ignoring Colbert’s comments and instead chastising NPR, does Feith reinforce that only comics can get away with such accusations? When accompanied by a laugh, this is what Joanne Gilbert (2004) has dubbed the “male guffaw,” a laugh by those in power that performs the joke as politically harmless and ineffectual. Ultimately, if we simply laugh at Colbert’s witticism, allowing NPR’s retraction to stand, what do we accomplish?

All that being said, what I love about Colbert’s unasked redaction is that he performs a move parallel to that of NPR – he takes no responsibility himself and passes the (absence of) censure down the foodchain. NPR admits that the quotation was flawed and corrects it. The wording itself here is comical to anyone with an ear for such things, yet it perhaps implicitly chastises Colbert. In any case, Colbert takes it upon himself to correct his statement, but in turn passes responsibility on to an unnamed intern. As he provided free content for NPR, so the intern provided free content for the Colbert Report, and for that both he and the intern deserve a stern wag of the finger, justice served. This may not be so much of a “bite” on NPR, as homage to NPR’s own savvy and somewhat humorous “faux apology,” which itself serves to hold officials accountable.

Gilbert, Joanne. _Performing marginality: Humor, gender, and cultural critique_. Detroit, MI: Wayne State (2004).

Zijderveld, Anton C. _Reality in a looking glass: Rationality through an analysis of traditional folly_. Boston, MA: Routledge (1982).


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