May 2006 Ethics Dunces

Stephen Colbert and Fans

This really is an "Easy Call," except that so many supposedly intelligent people are so blinded by their detestation of President Bush that they'd apparently have trouble seeing the ethical drawbacks in, say, his drive-by shooting. The blogs and media columns are now buzzing with debate over whether Comedy Central comic Stephen Colbert's purposefully insulting routine at the annual White House Correspondent's dinner was courageous or outrageous. It's not much of an argument, for there really is no valid excuse for Colbert's self-serving behavior, which was no braver or appropriate than the actions of college campus protesters who think it's the height of civil disobedience to throw a pie in an invited speaker's face.

The dinner is one of the last remaining remnants of old Washington professionalism and civility, where frequent adversaries gather for an annual evening of good-humored ribbing and self-deprecating jokes. The President is the main attraction and practically speaking the guest of honor; without him, the event has no profile or news value. Colbert, whose often hilarious routine on the cable network Comedy Central is to play a pompous and clueless conservative talking head in the tradition of Bill O'Reilly, was invited to the dinner to provide entertainment, which is to say, comedy, which is to say, laughter. He was not invited to enlighten the gathering with his personal political views, as they are no more informed or well-researched than those of my Aunt Beatrice or your barber, and quite possible less. He was invited to make the evening more enjoyable for the dinner's attendees and its honored guest, the President of the United States. But Colbert decided to use the opportunity to ridicule and attack both the press corps and the Bush presidency in frontal and intentionally offensive fashion, inspiring sparse and uncomfortable laughter and generally making his hosts want to crawl under their tables.

It was a great, and probably calculated, career move for Colbert, whose core audience skews young, Democratic, Bush-o-phobic and uncivil. Undoubtedly his performance, a stink-bomb measured by the usual standards of entertainment success (which require that one's performance must be appreciated by the actual audience one is performing for), will raise his profile, fan base, ratings, salary and appearance fees. And all it took was for him to ignore basic ethical values of respect, fairness, honesty and civility.

Also comedy.

Good work, Stephen. I'm sure you feel that the ends justify the means.

The enhancement of Colbert's fame and fortune isn't the "ends" that he is being lionized for in the rabid left blogosphere, though. The bloggers are cheering his "courage," repeating the comment from Comedy Central's top banana, "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, that it took "balls" to insult Bush to his face. Ridiculous. It takes courage to insult Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il, but an American President has no choice but to sit, smile, and accept the rantings of whatever self-styled amateur policy expert who gets control of a podium. Intentional rudeness is always "courageous," I suppose, because some well-deserved criticism is bound to come the boor's way afterwards. Running naked through the Supreme Court is "courageous;" telling the host at a dinner party that her food "sucks" is courageous; farting and belching in church is "courageous." There are many inappropriate and disruptive actions that are courageous in this way; that doesn't make them admirable.

The fact is that Colbert was a guest, and he embarrassed his hosts and their guest of honor, just as Don Imus did a few years ago at another dinner in which used his keynote speaker status to insult the Clintons. Imus was also called brave. It's not brave being an ill-mannered jerk when you make your living appealing to people who like ill-mannered jerks. And it is not admirable to accept money for a job when you have no intention of doing what you are paid for, which in Colbert's case was to be funny and make sure everyone had a good time.

The blog Peanut Gallery cheering for Colbert insists that the comic wasn't obligated to show respect for the President of the United States. Well, the Peanut Gallery is wrong, but never mind. What matters is that his hosts expected him to show due respect and not embarrass them, and Colbert knew it. If he felt he couldn't be respectful, then he had only one ethical choice: turn down the invitation. That would have been courageous; that would have been principled. Rhetorically spitting in the President's face, on the other hand, was none of these.

A final note on this particular Ethics Dunce and his apologists:

Comedy Central, as discussed elsewhere on the Scoreboard, recently censored its animated satire "South Park" because it implied that it was afraid of possible retribution from Muslim extremists for the show's use of a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Neither Colbert or Stewart had the "balls" to make the obvious point that their bosses were craven hypocrites to simultaneously produce daily ridicule of the War on Terror while cringing in terror themselves when legitimate satire required some genuine conviction. Neither the station nor its talent will stand up for the First Amendment, but they will bray their defiance after abusing it to embarrass their own nation's elected leader.

Not courageous, not ethical, and definitely not funny.

I'm switching to HBO.




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