A decade ago, when I started writing a Washington Journalism Center syllabus on the history and future of news, I wanted to include a full day of material focusing on some element of the whole "entertainment as news" trend. I wanted to argue that the political commentary featured in settings such as Comedy Central represented, not the future of news, but the future of the old-school op-ed page.
After surveying what was happening in fall 2005-spring 2006, I decided to focus on the work of the hip young satirist Stephen Colbert. The question everyone was asking back then, of course, was: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? What does he really believe?
Well, I delivered that lecture on Colbert again last week, while reports began circulating that he would soon sit in David Letterman's postmodern-humor chair at CBS. Now it's official that Colbert has the "Late Show" nod and, once again, the dominate question in the coverage is: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? Will we finally find out who Stephen Colbert is now that he has said that he will stop playing that fictional "Stephen Colbert" character?
In other words, there are journalists out there who do not realize that it is quite common to see Colbert drop the "Stephen Colbert" mask and speak for himself. When? It happens almost every time that there is a Catholic guest or a guest who is on the show to talk about moral/religious issues, as opposed to strictly "political" issues. For example, consider the following exchange with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, author of "The Lucifer Effect."
ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”
COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”
COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”
ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”
COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”
The Catholic side of Colbert's work has received significant ink over the years, but very few publications are mentioning his faith in their coverage of his new "Late Night" gig. As you would expect -- with Rush Limbaugh raising all holy heckfire -- publications are asking political questions about Colbert, since politics are real and, well, faith is not really real.
So the New York Times offers this:
Mr. Colbert has made a name for pushing the edges of political satire, at times enraging voices on the right with his bumptious rendering of conservative positions. Famously, he disturbed the media universe at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 2006 when he gave no quarter in mocking then-President Bush. Though he has never openly endorsed Democrats or liberal positions (hardly what his conservative character would do), he did turn up seated next to Michelle Obama at a state dinner at the White House this year (and his character even bragged about it on the air).
The news of Mr. Colbert's appointment inflamed conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, who said CBS had "declared war on the heartland of America." But CBS executives made it clear that they expected Mr. Colbert to broaden his appeal when he moved to the medium of late night on a network.
Interesting. Has anyone thought to call Gov. Mike Huckabee and ask him what he thinks about that? It's significant, methinks, that Limbaugh seems to detest Huckabee just as much as he does Colbert. Meanwhile, Colbert genuinely seems to enjoy his witty exchanges with Huckabee, who is a cultural conservative more than he is a party-line GOP conservative.
Which raises an interesting point. I have no doubts whatsoever that Colbert is a Catholic progressive. However, has anyone noticed that he seems to love bashing Libertarian conservatism more than anything else? Maybe it is time for journalists to face the fact, once again, that there is no one simplistic political label that can be pinned on the Catholic Catechism. Correct?
Meanwhile, the team at Rolling Stone, of all places, noted this:
Colbert has been no less bighearted. His on-air tribute to his mother, who died last year, was poignant, remembering the woman who raised nine children after Colbert's father and two brothers died in a plane crash in 1974. But the sentiment comes through in other ways, noticeably on the recurring segment "The Word," in which Colbert thunderously trumpets a current right-wing talking point and, with a nimble verbal sleight of hand, contorts it until it become ludicrous, exposing the lie in GOP thinking and sneakily articulating a deeply humanist message. If that point wasn't clear, he made it manifest when he testified in 2010 before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law. Speaking up for the rights of immigrant farm workers, he broke character for a moment, saying "I like talking about people who don't have any power" and then paraphrasing from the Book of Matthew: "Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do unto me."
In contrast to the typical broadcaster who strives to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Colbert's act has irked partisans on both sides of the aisle. Conservatives annoyed by his frequent tweaking of right-wing talking points are already ruffled that CBS picked him, with radio's Rush Limbaugh telling listeners Thursday that CBS had "declared war on the heartland."
Fox News host Bill O'Reilly -- widely considered the inspiration for Colbert's Comedy Central show character -- earlier this week attacked Colbert as a left-wing "deceiver." ...
Colbert is a South Carolina native who came up through sketch comedy and first won fame as one of the faux reporters on Stewart's "Daily Show." He wins high praise from colleagues and critics for his ability to think on his feet, interviewing skills and performance savvy. Almost unique among major late-night hosts, Colbert, a Sunday school teacher who jokingly refers to himself as "America's most famous Catholic," has been unafraid to invoke his faith in discussing major issues of the day.
In other words, it's time for reporters to get into the details of all of that Colbert Catholic stuff. There is information in there. Trust me.