In defense of the Milbank and Cillizza's offensive episode of "Mouthpiece Theater."

Media criticism.
Aug. 4 2009 5:44 PM

Another Round of Mad Bitch, Please

In defense of the offensive episode of "Mouthpiece Theater."

Still from "Milbank, Flashing H. Clinton Photo: "We Won't Tell You Who's Getting A Bottle Of Mad Bitch" Beer"/YouTube.
Dana Milbank in "Mouthpiece Theater"

Will nobody stand up for Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza's asinine horseplay on the July 31 episode of their Washingtonpost.com video feature "Mouthpiece Theater"?

Certainly not the Washington Post. The paper panicked and removed the comedy segment from its site after protests from those who took issue with the duo's suggestion that the proper beverage to serve Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House beer summit would have been a bottle of Mad Bitch beer. Proving that you can't unring a bell, copies of the episode can be found all over the Web.

Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti disowned the video in this statement to the press: "The video was a satirical piece that lampooned people of all stripes. There was a section of the video that went too far, so we have removed the piece from our website."  When the Columbia Journalism Review approached Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti—nominal supervisor of the playground that is "Mouthpiece Theater"—to discuss the furor, he stiffed them. (Disclosure: Coratti also works with Slate, which is owned by the Post Co. I've had lunch with Milbank a couple of times and have met Cillizza once or twice.)

Has it really come to the point that you can't call the secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth a mad bitch in a comedy segment without people becoming unhinged and managing editors running for the exits?

If you're late to the dispute, Milbank and Cillizza are political journalists at the Post who, since early June, have been donning silly costumes and hoisting stupid props on a cheesy set that's supposed to echo the old Masterpiece Theater set. They make fun of themselves. They make fun of powerful politicians. The segments are short and topical.

Are they funny? I'm not really a fan of Milbank and Cillizza's brand of humor. But to put a finer point on it, I'm actually not a fan of any kind of humor. The very essence of humor is aggression. The point of most jokes is to inflict psychological suffering and pain—to transgress and make someone the butt. This is why I've declared my journalism, my office, my home, and the subway line I commute to work on absolutely comedy free.

Although I avoid making jokes—lest I hurt someone's feelings—I support the right of others to cross the line from gentle teasing to gore-splattering comedic mayhem. As Michael Kinsley has repeatedly noted, if you don't risk going too far, you probably won't go far enough. Nowhere is this maxim truer than in comedy. If you're not offending somebody, you're probably not pleasing anybody. Political satire that errs on the side of civility and good taste is empty. If you want that sort of crap, book Mark Russell.

When the Post gave Milbank a video berth on its Web site, it knew exactly what it was in for. Doesn't anybody over there recall that he's the guy who went on Countdown With Keith Olbermannwearing an orange ski cap, a hunting vest, and gloves right after Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a friend in the face with a shotgun and made light of the incident? Milbank said:

The vice president's always been a big believer in executive privilege, so this is just taking it to its logical extreme.

And:

I understand that [Plamegate special prosecutor] Pat Fitzgerald has been offered an invitation to the next [hunting trip].

Readers protested Milbank's tastelessness to Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, who got Liz Spayd, then assistant managing editor for national news, to comment. She told Howell that Milbank had "crossed the line" in his Countdown appearance.

Crossed the line? Isn't that what Coratti accused him of, too? Can humor exist without routine crossing of the line? Isn't swerving across the line again and again what humor is all about?

Howell pacified Post readers about Milbank's behavior by writing, "Suffice it to say that he has been taken to the Post's version of the woodshed and told not to do that again."

Fat chance. They've yet to build a woodshed that's strong enough to hold a guy like Milbank.

The only scandal here is the Post's cowardly removal of the "Mouthpiece Theater" segment from its site and Managing Editor Narisetti's cowardly refusal to discuss the controversy with the writer from CJR.

Meanwhile, Milbank and Cillizza aren't taking the excision of their work too personally, as today's segment, "Censored & Under Wraps," indicates. And something good has come out of the suppression of their work: This effective parody.

******

Hillary Clinton should consider herself fortunate. At least Milbank and Cillizza didn't call her a "congenital liar," as William Safire did in a 1996 New York Times column. Call me names via e-mail at slate.pressbox@gmail.com and listen to my nonstop rudeness on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word bitch in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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