By contrast, it was mostly left to nontraditional online outlets, such as The Huffington Post and Gawker, to strike a skeptical chord, to suggest that perhaps this wasn't the best idea since Colbert's publicity stunt might pose a distraction at a time when the campaign should be focusing on big issues.
That's a fair point. But consider this: The Colbert candidacy only became a distraction because the press allowed it to, because the press literally drives itself to distraction on the campaign trail. That's not an unfortunate side effect of the process. That's the goal.
I'm almost relieved that Democratic officials in South Caroline squashed the Colbert stunt by denying his attempt to get on the ballot. That's the only way the press was going to drop the story.
Think of the political press corps as that fat kid from "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," Augustus Gloop. For too many journalists, the lure of the Colbert candidacy is akin to Wonka's river of chocolate, the one that lured the candy-loving Gloop into the deep end and got him stuck inside the tubes. The press already seems to do everything it can to avoid covering campaign substance. Instead, it pursues trivia such as John Edwards' haircut, or Hillary Clinton's laugh and her cleavage. The allure of a saccharine story like Colbert's running gag was simply too tempting.
That's because the press has decided to cover presidential candidates as celebrities, as personalities. The media phenomena became enshrined during the 2000 contest when the press announced that presidential campaigns were no longer about how candidates might function as presidents; what they might actually do as commander in chief. Instead, campaigns were about personalities - which candidate was fun to be around and which one was authentic.
The approach is thriving today. Look at the latest research findings from the campaign trail: "Just 12 percent of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election," according to Editor & Publisher magazine. "And just 1 percent of stories examined the candidates' records or past public performance."
The obvious media reaction to the Colbert candidacy should have been to note it as the book-selling publicity stunt that it was, have a chuckle, and move on. Instead, the press lingered, giving the story way too much attention, and often at the expense of more pressing topics.
For instance, ABC's "Nightline" found time to cover the Colbert candidacy. Yet "Nightline" has not found time during the last six weeks to cover the war from Iraq.
Colbert's race did momentarily seem to gain newsworthiness last week when a Rasmussen poll showed the "Comedy Central" host grabbing an impressive 13 percent when positioned as an independent candidate.
None of the news reports I saw about the polling results mentioned it, but what exactly is the point of conducting a national poll since Colbert is only trying to get on the ballot in one state? Meaning, of the 1,200 people Rasmussen polled, it's likely that, based on census data, maybe 10 or 20 of the respondents were actually from South Carolina. It's like running a national poll on whom Americans would prefer to be the next senator from New York; it's perfectly pointless exercise except, of course, that in the case of Colbert it's fun and entertaining.
Nonetheless, on Oct. 29, "Good Morning America" host Diane Sawyer, in an apparent reference to the Rasmussen poll, suggested that, "If (Colbert) keeps gaining at the rate he's gaining, by the end of November he could be the leading candidate."
Question: In the history of modern-day American presidential campaigns, has a new candidate ever entered the race polling at roughly 10 percent and then proceeded to pick up an additional 10 percent each week for four weeks running? Ever? Why would anybody suggest that a late-night comedian might be able to accomplish what no other candidate has ever done in American politics? What would prompt somebody to suggest that Colbert, by next month, might soon be garnering 40 percent and be the leading candidate for president?
Answer: Because it's fun.
Eric Boehlert is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush" (Free Press, 2006). He is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) liberal research and information center that monitors the media.