Appearing at a Winthrop University panel Thursday, MSNBC host and NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd ripped into Stephen Colbert and his not-yet-official run, suggesting that Colbert might have some ulterior motives in the way he’s almost throwing his hat into the GOP primary ring:“Is it fair to the process? Yes, the process is a mess, but he’s doing it in a way that it feels as if he’s trying to influence it with his own agenda, that may be anti-Republican. And we in the media are covering it as a schtick and a satire, but it’s like, ‘Well wait a minute here…’ he’s also trying to do his best to marginalize the candidates, and we’re participating in that marginalization.”
This leaves me puzzled, and for a number of reasons. First, this implies these candidates haven't been perfectly capable of marginalizing themselves. Second, it implies that top-tier political analyst Chuck Todd has only just now figured out that Colbert might have an "agenda," or that it might be "anti-Republican." There's probably a third thing there too, but like Rick Perry, I have forgotten it.
Political satire pretty much hinges on making fun of politicians. It hinges on having a point of view, or at least on pointing out that some other particular point of view is ridiculous. This is not new. It also does not stop being political satire if it does not take on both parties or multiple points of view equally: Satirists are not afflicted by the constant necessity to "balance" every mercilessly stupid thing that comes out of one party with some supposedly equally stupid thing coming from the other. No, studiously crafting false equivalencies in an effort to "balance" the news in such a way as to offend neither party is the task of political reporters; satirists are free to just tell the damn truth already.
I think it is perfectly legitimate for Colbert to point out both the ridiculous extent to which money corrupts politics, and the ridiculous outcomes we get because we allow it. For starters, cash infusions allow Idiots to run for national office, and that is a bad thing. Without the instant advantage provided by millions of dollars, Idiots might have a tougher time competing—or not. It's difficult to say. But it is also legitimate to at least point out that we are surrounded by Idiots, people who say idiotic things, who contradict themselves daily, or who in their past histories have demonstrated a personal integrity just one step up from that of serial killer. I suppose satirists could bash the Democratic presidential primaries equally, but oh yes, I just remembered: There aren't any to speak of. Go figure.
I think, though, what grates on me is this: Chuck Todd opines that satirist Stephen Colbert might have an agenda, and that that makes covering his campaign (I thought for a while as to whether "campaign" should appear in quotes or outside of them, before determining that it really shouldn't matter) a troubling move for political reporters. But Chuck Todd covers "candidates" with "agendas," often ridiculous "candidates" and "agendas," every day of his damn life. Why is it more troubling in this case? Because of the suspicion that Colbert is not serious? Who the flying hell decided Michele Bachmann was "serious"? Because Colbert says intentionally silly things? Dear political punditry, have you heard some of the crap that spews from Newt Gingrich's emblubbered maw? As supposedly serious politician, Newt calls for overthrowing courts and the Constitution on a daily basis: I am not sure Colbert has ever in his comedic life proposed something that inane. Certainly nothing as dangerous, either.
But if Colbert did have an anti-Republican agenda, why would that make it difficult for political pundits to cover him? Certainly having an anti-Democratic agenda has never caused a moment of pause. And if Colbert has an "anti-Republican" agenda even within a Republican primary, who is the arbiter of what "anti-Republican" means? Does Newt Gingrich get to decide what "being a Republican" stands for? Does Rick Santorum? Does Karl Rove, or Fox News, or Chuck Todd? Perhaps what seems "anti-Republican" to one pundit could be seen by others to be an attempt to shift the party back to a truer form of Republicanism. One not so fear-obsessed, or money-dominated; one not so in thrall to the most radically regressive members. Even as satire, that would be a valid political story.
I am at this point not sure how someone would tell the satiric candidates apart from the sincere ones. If you asked me whether the Republican Party would be better off in the hands of Stephen Colbert, or Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich, or Mitt Romney, I hardly think Colbert's would be the first name you would cross off the list. Nonetheless, if the entire point of your political pundit life is to pretend not to notice which of those candidates are profoundly silly or which of their ideas is goddamn disastrous, you probably have no basis to start now.
No, if history is to be any guide, the objective nature of modern punditry would seem to demand you treat the intentionally silly, inane and satiric candidate as the absolute equal to all the others. I'm dead serious here: If the point of punditry is to treat even the gigantic assholes and the outright morons as if they were truly worthy of consideration, equal in abilities and stature to all the others, than it would be incumbent upon you to treat a free-range chicken decked out in sensible business attire as if it, too, were presidential material.
That, of course, is yet another aspect of our discourse that Colbert is openly mocking. The notion that even the most ridiculous of candidates can run for office and, somehow, be treated as if they are sane and credible by a press corps that seemingly cannot tell the difference unless and until you beat them over the head with it. No, it's all about process questions now. Former Senator Bugfuck, how do you think you will do among religious voters? Does your campaign have a plan for Florida? How will you counter charges by your opponent that you hurt small animals for fun, and how will your campaign respond to the pictures your opponent has released that showing you doing that? Do you think he's mean for bringing that stuff up?
Then there's this:
Todd went after both Colbert and Jon Stewart for mocking members of the media, then backing off and saying “we’re just comedians” when the members of the media call them out on it. “Actually, no you’re not [comedians] anymore,” Todd said. “You are mocking what we’re doing, and you want a place in this, then you are also going to be held accountable for how you cover and how you do your job.”
I don't understand that. No, I seriously don't. The rough translation is that Todd (like other members of the media) gets mocked by the comedians Colbert and Stewart, but he thinks that mocking the media somehow does not make them "comedians" anymore, because ... why, again? Because Todd is pissed off at getting mocked, I suppose, which again suggests he is not as up as he thinks he is on this entire "satire" concept. But the threat is that the comedians can expect to be "held accountable," by Todd and others, and that political satirists are overstepping their jester credentials by wanting "a place in this," which I suppose means being too successful in interjecting themselves into the asininity that is politics. The only threat I can think of is that Chuck Todd and other reporters might start treating Colbert and Stewart badly, which is a very lame threat indeed, and one I am not sure the satirists of the world will be quaking over.
I have nothing invested in whether Colbert does or does not do a damn thing. Neither does Todd or any other reporter, frankly, since one would think their profession is long past the point of being able to feel shame. I am a little encouraged, though, that Colbert seems to have reporters actually beginning to realize that yes, Virginia (and South Carolina, and Florida, and Iowa) it is indeed possible for some politicians to be so very silly that you should question their sincerity, their objectively implausible ideas, and possibly their sanity. You might also begin to take a far more critical look at supposedly "independent" organizations with similarly ridiculous claims or schemes, since I hear tell they may have "agendas" of their own.
It apparently took an outright satiric run to get any of them to ponder on these things, though, and even now can only see how it might apply to an interfering comedian, so I doubt we should hold our breath while they puzzle out the possible implications.