The Iraq War gets the Colbert bump

The Iraq War gets the Colbert bump

If you missed it, last night’s Colbert Report taped from Baghdad was absolutely phenomenal television, culminating in President Obama making an appearance by satellite to order Gen. Ray Odierno to shave Colbert’s head:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Obama Orders Stephen’s Haircut – Ray Odierno
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Stephen Colbert in Iraq

Kudos to Colbert for putting on a great show for the troops and the viewers back home. But given that the show is paired with Colbert stint as "guest editor," of a Newsweek special issue on Iraq, it’s fair to ask what exactly the point of this project is. Colbert quipped last night that, "I thought the war was over, because I haven’t seen any stories about it in a month," and the show and the magazine seemed to be designed to bring media focus back to a war that Americans haven’t been paying much attention to lately.

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s ultra-meta-editor’s note puts it this way:

Some readers and critics will inevitably object, saying that this is a publicity stunt. To them I solemnly say: you are half-right. Of course I am seeking publicity for the magazine. I would argue with the term "stunt," though, but only because of the popular assumption that a stunt is something silly. (The dictionary definition is a feat of daring, but we do not live in the dictionary.) Colbert’s involvement is an exercise not in silliness but in satire, and the two are very different things. His role means more attention for NEWSWEEK, yes, and to me that is a good thing. It also brings more readers to a serious subject—and that heightened interest is a good thing, too.

Believe me, as editor of this blog I’m sympathetic to the desire to use celebrity buzz to attract eyeballs (trade secret: the top two Google searches leading readers to Passport right now are "sex photo" and "Susan Boyle") and we’ve even attempted to harness the power of the Colbert bump ourselves, but I’m skeptical of the idea that "heightened interest" is a good thing in and of itself. 

First of all, I suspect that Colbert’s involvement with the issue is going to get quite a bit more attention than the stories within. Second, Iraq is going to be back increasingly back in the news anyway as the planned withdrawal date draws closer, so is there really something to be gained by "drawing attention" to it right now?

Possibly, but it depends what you do with that attention. Colbert (the real person or the character) isn’t really saying much new about the war, leaving that to the guests on his show and the "serious" writers in the magazine. Since his TV guests this week are mostly military and Fareed Zakaria’s Newsweek cover story about victory in Iraq is the kind of goalpost moving that Colbert has relished mocking for years, it’s hard to say that he’s making any sort of critique. And it’s hard to call this week’s shows satire given the free publicity he’s giving the president and General Odierno to publicize U.S. achievements in Iraq.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with Colbert making great television or Newsweek selling magazines, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for troops in Iraq to see the dwindling media coverage of their efforts, but I’m not quite sure that attention on its own, particularly with Colbert himself hogging the spotlight, is really going to do much for them.