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In #CancelColbert, A Firestorm And A Lost Opportunity

A joke Stephen Colbert made on his show last week was retweeted by Comedy Central. The joke — shorn of its context because, well, Twitter — sparked an online firestorm, and the hashtag #CancelColbert.
Comedy Central
A joke Stephen Colbert made on his show last week was retweeted by Comedy Central. The joke — shorn of its context because, well, Twitter — sparked an online firestorm, and the hashtag #CancelColbert.

At first, the idea of canceling The Colbert Report over a wayward tweet sounded like handing out the death penalty for a speeding ticket.

And as much as I understand the notion of using a provocative hashtag to fuel an important conversation, the #CancelColbert controversy mostly shows the difficulty of deciding just how offensive a joke based in stereotypes really is.

And there's a more important question: Once you determine something awful happened, how does it get fixed?

Stephen Colbert offered one solution Monday night, spending much of his show sending up the backlash from a tweet sent by the show's corporate account the Thursday before. That tweet read: "I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong, Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Whoever pressed "send" apparently didn't realize that by cutting out the context — that Colbert was lampooning a charity for Native Americans with the term "Redskins" in the title — it looked like the comic was launching a decidedly racist joke across social media for no reason.

Colbert responded Monday by toggling between his fake Colbert persona, a conservative pundit blustering about the "dark forces" trying to take down his "youth-friendly product placement," and what sounded like the real guy — insisting that he's not a racist and he doesn't control the Twitter account which posted the unfortunate message.

"I am not a racist. I don't even see race ... not even my own," Colbert said, just after asking his fans not to attack the activist who started the #CancelColbert movement, Suey Park. "People tell me I am white and I believe them because I just devoted six minutes to explaining how I'm not a racist ... and that is about the whitest thing you can do."

By the end of it, he had dinged Asian-American pundit Michele Malkin (the conservative columnist criticized him, Colbert noted, even though she wrote a book titled In Defense of Internment), shut down his fake charity (firing its only fake employee, an Asian-American) and had Twitter co-founder Biz Stone eliminate the corporate account which started it all, @ColbertReport.

But in the process of all this #CancelColbert mania, a few important lessons about how to judge such incidents got lost.

First, history matters. As a media critic back in 2007, I called for radio host Don Imus to lose his gigs at MSNBC and CBS Radio because he called a basketball team "nappy-headed hos" after a long string of similar, racially charged incidents. Imus' racism was part of a long, well-established pattern that he had proved he wasn't going to change; that's much worse than a single mistake, no matter how awful.

Second, transparency matters. Colbert probably doesn't want to throw a lower-level employee under the rhetorical bus. But frankly, if he and Comedy Central had just admitted how they wound up tweeting such an awful joke without context, the discussion could have happened in a less explosive fashion with an eye toward avoiding such issues in the future.

Third, vocabulary matters. Park told The New Yorker she doesn't want Colbert's show canceled, despite starting a hashtag calling for exactly that. We need to work harder to find words for degrees of race problems which fall below the Defcon One level of outright racism and build protests around the solutions we actually want to see.

Colbert is right; he's not a racist, and his history proves that. But Park and many of her supporters also have a point when they say a racist joke used to lampoon the clueless character who makes it can still sting.

And Park makes another great point by noting comics sometimes seem more willing to make those kind of indirect racial jokes about minority groups that don't protest as often about stereotyping in media, like Asian-Americans.

But she shouldn't imply she wants Colbert's show canceled just for the online juice it brings. And calling him or the show racist for a clumsy use of satire — especially when the original goal was to highlight the real-life institutionalizing of a racial slur — also seems excessive. (It doesn't help that some Native American activists have complained the whole controversy distracts from the original protest about the "Redskins" slur.)

Sure, the #CancelColbert fight drew far more attention to Park's complaints. But it also encouraged a lot of Colbert fans to see the whole issue as overblown and unfair, which transfers to all the subtler arguments about race and white privilege she wants the show and its viewers to consider.

For anyone hoping to convince the white mainstream to respect these issues, that sounds a lot like winning a battle to lose the war.

In the end, activists got attention, cable channels and websites got a load of stories on a slow weekend and Colbert himself got half a show's worth of funny gags.

The only thing that got muddled was a productive, informed discussion about stereotypes in media that might have changed how such jokes are handled in the future.

Wonder if it was worth it?

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.