aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Colbert, Murrow and Me
Then last week I trotted out the Murrow comparison again, this time for Stephen Colbert. Swept up in his episode aiming to end the WGA writers strike via a civil rights history lesson, I said he “he is nothing less than the modern embodiment of Edward R. Murrow.”
Over the top?
Maybe. That’s what bloggers do. But I decided to check it out with Robert Thompson, a professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
He was generous in his reply:
I think there a lot of good comparisons to be made. I certainly think it is a provocative statement to make and one that holds a lot of truth to it. For one thing I think people forget that when Murrow was doing his best work and the work he is most remembered for, he was doing straight-out advocacy journalism. He was making really no effort to be objective. That is, the documentary in which he took on McCarthy was not fair, not balanced. He went after that subject â€“ It wasn’t that he lied, it wasn’t that those clips that he showed or those tapes that he played or newspapers that he held were made up. It was all factual information. But the way that was produced, the way it was narrated, the way it was edited, was in fact a full frontal attack on something that Murrow and many other people then and since felt that needed to be attacked. And he did it. [...]
That’s something that so much of American television journalism has in many ways abandoned. Even Walter Cronkite did his famous editorial against the Viet Nam war back in 1968. It’s very unlikely we would ever see that being done by any of the big anchors today. And in that fear, that change of news culture, we’ve taken that away from so many of the legit news people and the comedy people can move in and do it. And Colbert is doing just that. So in that sense, I agree. There is this comparison with Murrow and Colbert.
However, we have to be careful that we don’t take it too far because Murrow was still working within a set of professional standard that made up broadcast journalism in its heyday. When it was covering the cold war and civil rights, the two great stories of the last half of 20th century. And it was operating according to those journalistic principles. Colbert doesn’t have to do that. It’s a comedy show and while not having to obey those things make him able to do stuff that journalists can’t, we still have to remember that this is in fact a good comedy, a politically relevant one, but still a comedy show. For example, his Januray 22 bit on the hospital strike, you really have to kind of figure it out. It is really difficult to parse what is actually going on here. Unusually, for that date, Colbert himself narrates it. Not the other people who often do that kind of story on The Daily Show, for example. So, Colbert narrates it himself. And we know that Stephen Colbert is narrating in, he’s always on that show in his character “Stephen Colbert” in quotation marks. This O’Reilly-esque type he plays that we clearly know he’s not his own real person. But at the same time, part of the story includes his own personal history. His up-bringing in South Carolina, what his father did, and all of this kind of thing. So he’s really kind of floating around on both side of this line of, Stephen Colbert, the real person. Stephen Colbert, the character he plays. And at the same time he’s commenting on the WGA strike which he currently is in some ways persona non grata about because he put his show back on the air. But in some other eyes he is the hero because he is making that cause, using his pulpit for that cause, and the whole thing is really kind of fuzzy because these lines keep being crossed.
As opposed to Edward R. Murrow who came out and said this is Edward R. Murrow, CBS News, and he spoke in that voice, under that authority, and presented a bunch of documentary evidence. Comedy is not able to speak with that kind of authority. But then, it also doesn’t have to obey its rules, which allows it to play fast and loose. And it allows it, as any comic fool can rush in, where the angels of journalists and historians fear to tread. And as we know if we’ve ever watched any Shakespearean tragedy, fools can often be the wisest people on the stage.