What journalists can learn from Stephen Colbert's brutal Trump jokes
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There's a brutal democracy in media consumption. Metrics show all, whether we're using our smartphones, handling the TV clicker or scrolling dozens of websites.
No chronicler of the early Trump follies is hotter than Stephen Colbert. He's struck a chord and snared folks, like my household, to turn him on each evening (even if there was some inattention after he succeeded David Letterman).
A lot of journalists are now Colbert watchers. They used to be Jon Stewart addicts, which was in part an act of self-flagellation as Stewart derided the pomposity, superficiality and miscues of reporters and pundits. But there was a sense that his media criticism was incisive, if painful.
What is it now about Colbert, the rhythm he's found and what the media might learn? Even with creative competition like host Kevin Spacey, he got kudos for a brief, cutting Trump appearance last night at the Tony Awards while presenting the best revival of a music award. (Hollywood Reporter)
"I guess my thought is that the media can only do so much when the chief executive of the land is trying to delegitimize them," says Kelly Leonard, former longtime Second City artistic director. "That's where Colbert steps in to change the narrative."
Colbert is "finding fresher pathways into Trump mostly by stepping just a little further away from Trump and dialing back the hysteria," says Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune theater critic.
"He starts with a metaphor, as he did on the Tonys Sunday, and then lets that metaphor collide with Trump," Jones said. "It's subtler and richer and it works better than going after him head-on."
Anne Libera, Leonard's spouse and Colbert's Northwestern University roommate, has a line that "comedy doesn't change the world. But comedy shows you that the world has changed." Colbert, in that regard, is showing us what's next, says Leonard.
"The thing about Stephen is that unlike (Jon) Stewart, he isn't essentially a political animal," says Libera, who helped Colbert get his first job working at the box-office at Chicago's Second City (which enabled him to take courses for free, then flourish and make the troupe). They were both 22.
A further lesson for journalists comes in Colbert's intense interest in language and stories, Libera says, "and even more specifically how our words reveal or betray us. He has also always been fascinated by messiahs (real and false) and then by extension charlatans of all kinds (he was always interested in Mormonism and used to quiz the missionaries who came to Northwestern)."
"All is by way of saying that as incoherent as Trump appears to be sometimes, he also uses words as weapons. He clings to the idea that his power comes from an absolute belief in his own 'winning.' He is a small man who believes that he is in the midst of an epic story."
This all seems tailor-made for a comedian with a fascination with words and epic narratives, said Libera, who teaches at both Second City and at Columbia College Chicago.
Leonard recalls Colbert in the first Second City show he produced, "Where's Your God Now, Charlie Brown," in 1992. He's found "Stephen an incredibly good improviser. And to be an incredibly good improviser you have to excel at listening."
"My instinct is that Stephen is listening to a change in the zeitgeist, and he is reflecting that back to the audience. In the same way that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh recognized a fear of displacement in some regions of the public sector and fed their fears and stoked the energy behind their cause, Colbert sees another sector of vox populi that feels a real sense of fear and he provides cultural ammunition for their resistance."
Everyone tells themselves stories to make sense of the world and their particular place in the world, Leonard said. In particularly tenuous times, people need the aid of storytellers to complete that narrative.
"I think Stephen Colbert is one of those storytellers that allow for a segment of the American public to believe that they are not living in an episode of 'The Man in the High Castle.'"
Libera adds that Colbert is especially strong at story and narrative, which aren't the strengths of many reporters. The monologues do contain jokes, obviously, but they are at heart stories with characters told through his idiosyncratic lens. He's trying to make sense of the Trump universe, which has ideas and tropes that, she says, "fascinates Stephen."
Ultimately, it's the art of storytelling that's relevant for some of those many journalists breaking stories, cranking out the copy and doing serious punditry about Trump — in the process leaving even diligent consumers feeling a certain press whiplash since there's so much to consume.
"If you look at two other successful comedians who take on Trump right now — Seth Meyers is doing really good and smart news jokes, Samantha Bee is giving gorgeous hilarious point-of-view rants — Stephen is putting it all into a narrative context."
That's very tough to do comedically but, when done right, very satisfying.
"It not only maps onto our intellect as a joke does, or our emotions as a rant does, but gives us a sense of truth and coherence." It's why he's a perfect supplement to the understandable daily Trump press deluge.
Uber's directors meet
"According to sources close to the situation, Uber’s full board will meet (Monday) morning to consider a series of recommendations — which could include calling for the firing of some top managers — from an investigation that looked at the car-hailing company’s toxic culture." (Recode)
"Sources who have seen parts of it said the report chronicles an aggressive and fast-growing startup, resulting in a frequently chaotic and 'hostile work environment' without adequate systems in place to ensure that violations such as sexual harassment and retaliatory behavior were dealt with professionally."
Sunday Microsoft news
"At its E3 Xbox One X reveal event on Sunday, Microsoft shared a relentless stream of boundary-pushing system specs for the new console, but it stayed surprisingly quiet regarding the future of virtual reality on the device." (TechCrunch)
A second Justice Department antitrust division deadline passed a week ago concerning a proposed sale of the Chicago Sun-Times to Tronc, owner of the Chicago Tribune. What's up?
Those involved in the deal by two traditional rivals await the department's final response to whether a group led by former Chicago alderman Edwin Eisendrath (a member of the local propertied class) and the Chicago Federation of Labor can be moved to a next phase in its belated purchase proposal. The betting line would still favor a Sun-Times-Tronc deal, in part given weak Sun-Times economics and pre-existing deals on printing and distribution.
The flexibility of online
The New York Times ran a solid profile of NBC's Katy Tur and wound up fiddling with the original headline ("Katy Tur Is Tougher Than She Looks") a couple of times amid some negative responses that it was sexist.
Conason on impeachment
Doing a freelance gig for BuzzFeed, National Memo editor Joe Conason harkens to his Clinton impeachment experience and suggests that, just like that era's Kenneth Starr and other independent/special counsel, Robert Mueller "may well prosecute offenses that appear tangential to the Russia case in order to turn targets into witnesses. That puts every single player in Trump’s orbit, starting with minor and seemingly irrelevant characters, in serious jeopardy." (BuzzFeed)
Magazine luxury ads
The Wall Street Journal detailed how "luxury companies are turning away from glossy magazines, long the industry's main platform for trumpeting its brands to well-heeled consumers."
No surprise, they're diverting a lot of spending into digital campaigns, while publishing giants like Conde Nast (owner of Vanity Fair) are both trying to snare some of that digital spending and partnering with fashion brands to create content.
Francois-Henri Pinault, billionaire boss of luxury giant Kering Co. (and spouse of Salma Hayek), estimates that his brands such as Gucci and Saint Laurent spend as much as 40 percent of their communication budget on digital compared to as little as 15 percent 18 months ago.
An exclusive that nonplussed one reporter
"A GOP donor who once had ties to IBM is the man behind the millions of Twitter bots President Trump counts on as followers who could be employed to target voters with misleading or fake news on social media." (New York Daily News)
Ken Vogel a top reporter for Politico, found "no proof whatsoever" for the thesis. (@kenvogel)
Here's the billboard sentence: "In order for it to work, the scheme relies on the quiet guidance of Robert Mercer, a reclusive Republican mega-donor and staunch Trump supporter, sources told the Daily News."
Tony Awards tweeting
Delta Airlines belatedly pulled its support of a free "Julius Caesar" production at Central Park's Delacorte Theater when it stumbled upon the fact (apparently via a Fox News report) that this was a modernized version with a blonde leader in modern menswear. (Vulture)
During the Tony Awards (that, stunningly, didn't carry the lifetime achievement award for James Earl Jones), the estimable former New York Times dramatic critic Frank Rich (now with cable's "Veep" and New York magazine) tweeted, "With all due respect, this is the important news in the theater tonight. Let's see if Spacey or anyone at #TonyAwards takes it on." Not that I saw while mostly watching the U.S.-Mexico soccer game.
TV and authoritarianism
Academics Michael Morgan and James Shanahan combine in the Journal of Communication on "Television and the Cultivation of Authoritarianism: A Return Visit from an Unexpected Friend."
In sum, the "2016 Presidential election brought a surprise: the rise of Donald Trump as a viable candidate for the Republican nomination. What started as a seeming publicity stunt morphed into something more. Trump raised fears of authoritarianism — and even fascism — that were thought to be mostly confined to other countries."
Google prepared to get whacked
"As European Union officials count the days before their annual vacation, Google’s lawyers and lobbyists are hunkering down in Brussels, preparing for what may be a record EU antitrust fine." (Bloomberg)
"A penalty in the shopping search probe could come within weeks and many expect it to exceed a $1.2 billion fine on Intel Corp. in 2009."
Josh Gerstein of Politico did a smart piece on how James Comey's leaking of that memo probably violated FBI policy, isn't criminal, doesn't help his own reputation but clearly has negative impact on Trump.
It's come to this
"Criminal justice reformers pin their hopes on Jared Kushner — On the Hill, the president’s adviser and son-in-law is seen as the best chance to get support from the White House." (The Atlantic)
A courageous reporter
The New Yorker interviews Elena Milashina, 39, who's showed admirable nerve in reporting on outrageous government repression of gay men in Chechnya. (The New Yorker)
"I usually invite the people I need to interview to come to someplace outside of Chechnya. They will not talk in Chechnya; they simply are too afraid. The local authorities can do anything with the people you contact. You cannot protect them. One way around this is that I have a huge network of informants, who can send me information by phone or text, and which I then check with other people from my source list."
An item last week on James Comey's student journalist days at the College of William and Mary prompted the query as to the first journalist in residence there. It was me. The winner of a free drink next time he's in Chicago is Ernie Gates, former editor of the Newport News, Virginia Daily Press and recent ombudsman for Stars and Stripes.
"Fox & Friends" co-host Ainsley Earhardt said she heard fans at Yankee Stadium yesterday saying that "we should give the president a break, he's a businessman." Co-host Brian Kilmeade responded that Yankees fans are a lot less relevant than what special counsel Robert Mueller ends up thinking. And frequent Fox contributor Jay Sekulow, they noted, made an initial appearance as a new Trump lawyer (you thought he'd hire Jeffrey Toobin?).
CNN detailed a Trump defensive via tweets against Comey, while finding insights in a tweet by Fox regular (and frequent Trump defender) Ari Fleischer, who tweeted, "Stop talking. You're heading into a giant perjury trap." (@AriFleischer) "Sage advice," announced sub-co-host John Berman.
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" speculated on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' Tuesday testimony and Trump turning to a traditional messaging practice, such as "infrastructure week" that's now upon us. It also underscored rank-and-file Republicans feeling Trump is needlessly harrumphing (in part via tweets) about what they deem an inherently specious Russia investigation.