Ethics Dunce: Howard Kurtz…One Way Or The Other

Radner as "Baba Wawa." Walters, oddly, never felt the need to respond...

Radner as “Baba Wawa.” Walters, oddly, never felt the need to respond…

Maybe the ethics component in the title is gilding the lily in this case. Fox’s Kurtz, in attacking what he perceives as the unfairness of Stephen Colbert’s barbs, certainly misunderstands the ethics of Colbert’s craft, but what he primarily proves is that he’s a dunce…what kind of dunce, it’s difficult to tell. Is he the kind of dunce who can’t take a joke? Or is he the kind of  dunce who doesn’t realize he should leave the gags to professionals?

The former media ethics watchdog for the Washington Post, CNN and the Daily Beast, now playing that role for Fox News (all oxymoron jokes gratefully accepted), says that he has finally had his fill of being mocked by Colbert, the Comedy Central satirist whose gimmick is playing a conservative fool in order to ridicule real ones.

“It’s about time someone took on Stephen Colbert,” Kurtz wrote in what is either  serious piece on Fox News Insider, or a criminally inept attempt at ironic humor. “This guy—a fake anchor if ever there was one—has been maligning hard-working journalists for too long. Journalists like me. In an effort to get a few cheap laughs, this Comedy Central clown took my work out of context and, worse, engaged in selective editing. It was nothing less than a deliberate attempt to mislead viewers.”

Uh, Howie?

1. Colbert is a fake anchor. That’s the point. That’s the joke. You don’t attack his credibility by pointing that out. You attack  your own credibility for believing that it is germane to your complaint. He knows he’s a fake anchor. He works as hard at playing one as you do at being a real journalist. He also succeeds at his objective more often than you do

2. Colbert’s job is to make fun of people, which you call maligning. It doesn’t matter how unfair what he says is, if it’s funny. What does how hard you work or how hard any  target of satire works  have to do with their value as the butt of jokes? Who made the “only jokes about lazy slugs are allowed” rule that you seem to think is in force? Bill Clinton works hard. Sarah Palin works hard. Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump work hard. Justin Bieber works hard; Kanye West works hard. So what? If someone can be made into a joke, how hard they work is completely beside the point.

3. “In an effort to get a few cheap laughs…” Howard, in the comedy business, all laughs are gold. There aren’t any cheap ones. If you think that, try stand-up for a living. Wait…wait… don’t.

4. “This Comedy Central clown”—is that supposed to be an insult? It’s a description! Stephen Colbert is a Comedy Central clown.

5. You cannot seriously be complaining that a comedian took your words “out of context” and used “selective editing” for humorous effect. These are tools of satire and ridicule—using words out of context and selective editing. (Have you ever heard of Mad Libs?) David Letterman had a regular segment during the Bush years in which he would pull a strange laugh, a garbled phrase or a confusing exclamation from a Bush speech or answer to a reporter out of context and use it to make the President of the United States look like an idiot. And he would have really looked like an idiot if he made the same petulant complaint you are making. I fault Letterman for not having the guts to do the same routine with this President ( you can do it with anyone), but certainly not for using the device to make Bush look silly.

4. What does it say about a journalist when he feels has has to “take on” a comedian who mocks him? Did Walter Cronkite feel he had to defend himself against Johnny Carson’s various skits revealing that Walter wasn’t wearing pants under his desk, or was hiding hideous mutant chicken legs? Did Barbara Walters feel she had to point out that Gilda Radner’s “Baba Wawa” impression misrepresented her mild difficulty saying “r’s” as a full-fledged Elmer Fudd problem? This says that Kurtz…

  • ….doesn’t have a sense of humor
  • ….doesn’t understand satire
  • ….doesn’t know his place
  • ….isn’t very bright, and
  • …is asking to get everything he has received already in satirical assaults, worse.

Here is what Kurtz says was the last straw, causing his current ire and compelling him to defend himself—and I still harbor hopes that Howard himself is joking, because otherwise this is really, really sad:

“…we’ll be talking about the issue that prompted the contretemps—whether it’s fair for the media to raise questions about Hillary Clinton’s age. I raised this on “Special Report,” noting that her age (she’ll turn 69 just before the election) was hardly a secret. Colbert twisted this into “Fox News has just uncovered the bombshell of a lifetime.” I pointed out that veteran Washington handicapper Charlie Cook had written a column asking whether Hillary was too old to run for president. That got left on Colbert’s cutting-room floor. Didn’t fit the narrative.”

This is called “sarcasm,” you idiot. Colbert’s character is a pompous, clueless, indignant right-wing blow-hard like Bill O’Reilly after a head trauma….do you really not see that? Your complaint sounds like one of Colbert’s routines! Wait a minute…is it? If so, Kurtz is breaching  ethical duties that Colbert does not: competence and integrity. He is also breaching a core duty of a journalist: he’s supposed to be a truth-teller, unlike a comedian. He should not and cannot misrepresent the facts and his own opinions, not if he wants any viewer to trust him again. If this is Kurtz’s lame attempt to get publicity and viewers by trying to take on Colbert by imitating his act, that’s arguably worse than not getting the joke.

I suppose I have to watch Kurtz further humiliate himself today….whether he tries to seriously rebut a comedy bit, or crash and burn as he attempts one himself. Or maybe I won’t; the kind and ethical thing would be to ignore his self-inflicted humiliation, regardless of what he does.

I will definitely watch Colbert dissect his foolishness afterwards, though—wouldn’t miss it for the world.


Pointer: Mediaite

Source: Fox Insider

16 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Howard Kurtz…One Way Or The Other

    • With young people increasingly turning to people like Jon Stewart for news, despite him not really being an anchor either, I really do think it’s possible that there are those who don’t get that Colbert is also not a newsman.

      • That’s what I was thinking. I’m fine with what Stewart and Colbert do- they are so obviously satire/humor that if people are foolish enough to decide they’re “real news” then it’s the audience’s fault, not the comedians’. Still, if I were a target by them I can see how it might be a panic moment- “This comedian is ripping on me, but a lot of people don’t think of him as a comedian but as a serious new source, and they’ll internalize the comedy message as the real state of affairs, and as a comedian the guy isn’t subject to any of the restraint or fairness a normal journalist would be! I gotta say something!”

  1. I have an almost 14 year old stepson who claims he gets his “news” from the Comedy Channel. Scary. I am trying to get him to at least read the newpaper or doing something else on his computer besides play games, but it’s an uphill fight.

  2. While I watch those shows for needed laughs, sometimes I don’t get the joke because those stories aren’t covered in my local news. I end up scrambling to learn the missing news story. They may not be real journalists but I still learn something; I would have loved to have the ability to look up one of the Great Carnak jokes I didn’t get, as curiosity drove me crazy.

    And with the bias and unprofessionalism in journalism, being biased in favor of a witty line is less damaging to society than other media screwups we see all too often.

  3. I haven’t read the details of this particular incident, but I’m not ready to give Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart an unlimited pass every time they say something unfair. For one thing, like many writers, they use humor as a means to delivery commentary on matters of policy, business, and religion, and their commentary should not escape scrutiny just because it’s delivered in a humorous fashion. I can’t remember if “I was just kidding” is one of your unethical rationalizations, but it should be.

    Granted, when comediennes make stuff up to get a joke, it’s often hard to tell where to draw the line, but there’s a difference between humor and just plain lying. To some extent, the more outrageous the lie, the more the “jester’s privilege” applies. Accusing Mitt Romney of employing an army of child laborers chained up in his basement is an obvious exaggeration. On the other hand, Colbert would be getting close to the line by falsely accusing a Senator of being a racist because of a vote against a welfare bill that would have helped minorities, especially if the Senator actually had a good record on minority issues, and especially if the bill arguably had little to do with helping minorities. At some point, the misrepresentation can becomes too great to be excused without becoming so great that it’s obvious satire.

    The fact that Colbert would couch his accusations as approval doesn’t change the fact that he’s really making accusations. And making a bunch of jokes about someone’s racism with no foundation is less like satire and more like schoolyard bullying. Bullies get laughs from the audience too, you know.

    Then there’s the issue of taking advantage of people’s good will. This is especially a problem with the correspondent interviews on Jon Stewart’s show. People give hours of their time in a good faith belief that they will be able to express their viewpoint, only to have the show’s editor’s cut the piece to make them look stupid. That these people are naive for expecting something else from the Daily Show doesn’t make it much better and may make it worse. (Although since these people know it’s the Daily Show, it’s far better than the Borat movies, which took advantage of a lot of people who believed they were contributing to a very different project.)

    For the most part, Colbert and Stewart stay on the right side of satire, and I think a lot of their targets don’t get this. But stand-up comedy — and comic writing in general — is actually a very verbally brutal culture, which its members willing participate in. They have hard shells, but sometimes they seem to forget that their targets don’t.

  4. Thanks for one of your “generic” posts, Jack. By use of a simple search-and-replace tool for the name(s) of the subjects, it becomes the definitive response to those who slip on the banana peel because they weren’t looking where they were going, and then complain because they dropped the banana there in the first place — and someone clever reported them doing it ….

  5. You know… I’m going to play Devil’s advocate here.

    Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are fake news anchors. We get that. But these are fake news people that very often break into real news in such a way that they actually make political change. Arguably more often than other news outlets. Think what they did for first responders from 9-11, or Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire, or Colbert’s roasting of George Bush.

    So yeah…. These guys are more than happy to wade into professional politics, but the moment someone calls them on something that if they were straight news people they should be called out for they retreat into “we’re just clowns.” It’s disingenuous.

    Arguably worse, they’re blurring the lines. Think when Jon Stewart debated Bill O’Rielly. It was a serious debate. But they used props. O’Rielly in a straight news anchor from Fox. Or is he? Colbert ran for the republican nomination, and while it was all tongue in cheek, he brought to light how broken the American donation system is.

    They either need to back off from straight news, or accept a little responsibility.

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