Tuned In

Which One's the Fake Journalist Again?

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I’ll admit, when I first heard that Stephen Colbert was running for President, my reaction was: Oh, Stephen, you can do better. Colbert, I thought, was too much of an original to be reviving a stunt that’s been done for generations by TV comedian and cartoon character alike. But as with so much about The Colbert Report, having a real-live actor performing in straight-faced character adds much more potential to the joke. The potential, for instance, to have Tim Russert volunteer to make an ass out of himself on Meet the Press.

It made perfect sense that Russert would offer to host Colbert on his Sunday-morning show. Washington journalists have an endearing if desperate desire to show that they can let their hair down and hang with the cool kids, a fact to which The Capitol Steps owe much of their careers. And last year’s wave of hype around Borat made it safe for major media outlets to do fake interviews with a fake character, an embarrassing pander that Joel Stein vivisected in The LA Times.

Russert gamely answered Colbert’s parody of a politician with a parody of himself, grilling Colbert about the South Carolina state amphibian and his decision to leave the “t” in his surname silent. But you might have noticed that it was pretty hard to tell the parody Russert from the real one, which, of course, is part of Colbert’s point. With Colbert (and Jon Stewart), journalists repeatedly make the mistake of assuming that the joke is on the politicians when it’s also (or mainly) on themselves.

Media groupthink and cliches are The Daily Show’s bread and butter, and the sheeplike performance of the post-9/11 news media was the real butt of Colbert’s infamous White House correspondents’ dinner routine, which the journalists present decided was rude and unfunny–until the home audience hailed Colbert as a genius. Now Russert, like the rest of his colleagues, has rushed to lead Colbert’s bandwagon from behind, apparently oblivious that his eagerness to give over a third of his show to a comedian selling a book is part of the joke.

Sure, when Colbert kicked off the interview with platitudes about wanting to run for president because America was at an “unprecedented” “juncture,” he was skewering vague political speak. But he was also implicitly skewering the clubby Washington press routine that gives a platform to this empty bluster without calling it what it is. The only thing that made Colbert’s opening statement a joke, after all, was Colbert’s presence; if Mitt Romney or John Edwards had said the same thing in front of Russert, would anyone have batted an eye? Would Russert?

The more Russert tried to be a sport and go with the joke–bad move, by the way, to try to be as funny as the comic you’re interviewing–the more he made himself into the joke, as when he pulled out a Bert doll to argue with Colbert about the silent “t.” A serious Washington journalist was holding a Muppet and grilling a comedian–a joke, yes, but born out of the very real, and very serious, desperation of the old-line media to stay relevant and popular amidst a groundswell of blogs and Comedy Central shows that feed on the audience’s disgust with political journalism.

Russert was sitting across from someone feigning a persona and pretending that it was real. How is that any different from what Washington journalists do all the time–going along with some politician’s playacted, politically convenient outrage over a MoveOn.org ad or an opponent’s campaign contribution? The only difference here was that the dialogue was more clever.

Colbert, at least, is playing a character. What’s Tim Russert’s excuse?