Stephen Colbert, with arguably the sharpest tongue among America’s late-night TV ankle-biters, made his bones at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, laying a vile spiel on President George W. Bush and finding himself the man of the moment. How brave, to speak such truth to power, gushed the usual suspects, and Colbert has been riding that wave ever since.
But he had done no such thing. In the absence of personal risk, haranguing the powerful can be soul-satisfying, and sometimes it forges careers, but it isn’t brave by a long shot. Thomas More spoke truth to Henry VIII, and it cost him his head. Dietrich Bonheoffer spoke truth to Adolf Hitler and was hanged in a concentration camp. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke truth to the Soviet Union and suffered grievously for it. Stephen Colbert piddled on the president’s rug, and he’s been cashing big-bucks checks ever since. See the difference?
This isn’t to suggest that the powerful—presidents, especially—aren’t legitimate targets for partisan satire. “Have at it and let the people decide” has been the American way since John Adams survived the first contested presidential election in 1796. But the issue here isn’t presidents; it’s aiming topical spleen at easy targets, which, interestingly enough, we’re seeing less of since L’affaire Weinstein surfaced in the New York Times last week. Harvey Weinstein, movie mogul and ATM to progressive Democrats and their causes, was outed by the paper as an industrial-strength misogynist and hypocrite. This apparently wasn’t news to those who pay even passing attention to Hollywood, but kudos to the Paper of Record for finally letting the rest of us in on the open secret.
It doesn’t seem likely that Weinstein’s career will survive this scandal. He was fired by his production company over the weekend. Hollywood is known for comebacks, but this one would require Olympian moral gymnastics, all around.
Still, Weinstein caught no grief from late-night wisecrackers. Colbert was dumb as a post on the topic for days, breaking silence only after Weinstein had been fired—and even then, only to call him “a bad guy.” His late-night colleagues in calumny weren’t any better. Saturday Night Live invented slow-motion political character assassination with its over-the-top post-Watergate treatment of Gerald Ford, and the show has been gleefully tormenting politicians of a certain party ever since (and Bill Clinton, for his Oval Office shenanigans). But SNL had nothing to say about Weinstein over the weekend. Lorne Michaels, the show’s top producer, dismissed the scandal as “a New York thing” early Sunday morning.
Nobody reasonably expects political balance in a comedy sketch—how boring would that be?—and it is generally understood that Hollywood, and the media in general, descended into a progressive sinkhole long ago. So ignoring Weinstein’s agony is not surprising, ideologically—not to mention his storied ability to vaporize careers. There’s no appetite in show biz to speak truth to that kind of power.
Of course, now that the great man lies harpooned and helpless, the carrion-feeders will gather. Soon enough, the late-night types will find their voices—as did Colbert, tepidly, Monday night. But those who depend on entertainers for political news—a distressingly large number of viewers, apparently—would do well to remember the weekend when one of America’s premier powerbrokers stood exposed as an abuser of women and the gurus suddenly had no words.
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