Why a Large Part of the Internet Is Mad at Stephen Colbert

Friday, March 28, 2014 - 10:15 AM

There are two verified Twitter accounts associated with the Colbert Report, although neither is likely run by Stephen Colbert himself. One of those is @StephenAtHome, the other is @ColbertReport. The @ColbertReport account summoned an internet outrage tornado yesterday by tweeting “"I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

The joke was a reference to Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s argument that he didn’t need to change his team’s name, since Snyder had started a charitable foundation for Native Americans. 

Colbert has made similar jokes in the context of his show and they’ve been received as he intended them — as jokes about racism, rather than racist jokes. But Twitter isn’t great at context, and @ColbertReport has has over a million followers. Many of the people who saw his tweet hadn’t seen the segment it came from, and in isolation, it just looked like a weirdly racist joke. 

Over the past day or so, #CancelColbert has trended on Twitter. Over at @StephenAtHome, someone posted a tweet saying that @ColbertReport was run by Comedy Central, and had no oversight from anyone on staff at the Colbert Report. Which doesn’t really seem to have mollified anyone — #CancelColbert continues unabated. 

When there’s a fight on the internet, and you write about it, this is the part of the post where you’re supposed to explain (in the tone of a calm, moral know-it-all) who’s right and who’s wrong. 

In this case, I feel unable to. It’s easy to side with Colbert and his staff — I believe them when they say that the offending tweet is probably the fault of some anonymous Comedy Central PR employee. Plus, I feel a lot of sympathy for them - a joke that was an angry attack on racism is being perceived as racist. 

But also, if you’re on Twitter and you see what looks, on its face, like a pretty baldly racist joke from a successful media figure, it’s rational to be outraged about it. And if someone broadcasts something hateful to you without context, maybe you won’t immediately feel obligated to go on a fact-finding mission for more context that would exonerate the speaker. 

The whole thing just feels like a genunine misunderstanding. The good news, I suppose, is that it should blow over soon enough.

To put it mildly, it’s extremely, extremely unlikely Comedy Central will cancel a successful show because of a blunder from Comedy Central’s own PR division. The only cancellation I could imagine coming from this is the @ColbertReport Twitter account, and I bet even that emerges unscathed. In the end, the internet is a factory that generates outrages, so people will move on to something else in a few days, or hours. In the meantime, I just feel a little sympathy for everyone involved. 


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Comments [21]

McArdle from Pittsburgh, PA

A funny thing about the internet, every conversation about racism and context brings out at least one person whose takeaway is "if racism is sometimes ok, how come people get offended whenever I talk about the Jews?"

Mar. 29 2014 02:56 PM

Ok, since all the commenter seem to think racist jokes are ok as long as they are ironic, fine, let Colbert make his next "ironically racist" joke against Jews.

Mar. 28 2014 03:45 PM

It's a joke that makes fun of racism. so NO, it's the opposite of racist. Get your tubes tied, ya humorless morons.

Mar. 28 2014 03:18 PM
tom LI

MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and whatever else like them are out there for people to post their inane thoughts - are the top 3 worst inventions of the internet age. They will never redeem themselves as being wholly worth all the effort people put into them.

And Text messaging via cell-phones (anything but "I'm late", or "what exit was it?" or "do we need more beer?") runs right alongside them...!

All prone to extreme misunderstandings, that cripple the simple minded and rouse the Almighty Righteous to new heights of self-induced embarrassment.

Didnt we figure it after the first month of us using emails that we humans NEED physical cues and real world context to get-the-jokes...? After how many years of using emails, people still get offended by them, by the perceived tone - which is usually no more than the writer being succinct, and/or a lousy writer.

A simple sentence like, "I dont think you should do that, you're not up to that level." Is read; "I think you're a festering a-hole of a moron who couldn't properly close a pair velcro strapped sneakers, you jerk!"

Too funny that we're so stuck in the mud as a culture, spinning our wheels...just cant get anywhere..

Mar. 28 2014 03:14 PM
Ashley from New York

Considering it's The Colbert Report, every tweet that is pushed out to the masses should automatically be taken with a grain of salt. I mean, c'mon. It's. The. Colbert. Report. It's a show that is based on pseudo-persona and satire. Why would the Twitter account for the show be anything else? If it wasn't, it would be out of character and voice.

For every tweet that isn't in context, should they put in an asterisk? And then follow that tweet with a disclaimer and a link? I'd think that'd be a sign of cowing to the irrational masses and be out of character for the show.

You know what was really offensive to Asians? When ESPN ran that headline, "Chink in the Armor" in regards to Jeremy Lin. Now that was absolutely an indication of ignorance.

Mar. 28 2014 03:02 PM
tom LI

geTaylor, right, sure...white people should never speak again. Never utter a joke, never use slang, and most of all never comment on reverse racism.

(hmm...wonder how long it will take for the sarcasm to seep thru...?)

If white people cant comment on racism, that we're all allegedly guilty of, it will never go away!

Mar. 28 2014 03:01 PM

This is more accurately described as a tempest in a teapot, and while it worth covering as symbolic of a larger cultural debate, I question your decision to say that "large part of the internet" is involved.

In late October last year, it was reported that Twitter only had about 50 million US users, only 30 million of whom used it at least once a month. Most of its users are outside of the U.S. And there are about 2 billion people on the internet.

#cancelcolbert is trending - but with 59.5K tweets - many of them by people arguing with those who want to cancel Colbert.

Mar. 28 2014 02:30 PM

"Can a joke about racism be racist?"

Well, yeah - when it's told by a male person who is not "of color"; or not told at the expense of a male person who is not "of color".


Mar. 28 2014 01:51 PM
Jason Quest from Grand Rapids MI

This is mostly people not understanding what PARODY is.

Stephen Colbert has a show where he PRETENDS to be a racist (sexist, homophobic, etc) dork. This racist comment is just an example of his schtick.

Mar. 28 2014 12:28 PM
Matthew Wing from Lake Leelanau, MI

This isn't rational outrage (which doesn't exist on the internet anyway) this is a bunch of people who know part of a story having a tantrum, which seems to happen on a daily basis. It's a twitterfit, not news.

Mar. 28 2014 12:18 PM
pjbnyc from New York

Colbert's show is a parody of a conservative crank (O'Reilly) and it would be exactly in character for him to tweet that. Whether you saw the show or not, Colbert carries his context around with him, particularly when he's tweeting from @ColbertReport. The outrage is expected. That's what Internet users do. But OTM's understanding that it's "rational to be outraged" is, well, just irrational.

Mar. 28 2014 12:01 PM
Matt Brown

I feel like there has to be some due diligence on the part of the internet user before jumping on some hate/protest/hashtag bandwagon. You shouldn't sign a petition without knowing some of the background info, I feel the same applies here. However, I don't think the day will come when I can expect that sort of discretion and level-headedness from the internet en masse.

Mar. 28 2014 11:59 AM

What if he had called it the "Yo Yo Yo Bro Foundation for Black Dudes or Whatever"? Haven't comedians realized that if you use Asians for ironic anti-racist punchlines people do get mad? I remember an actress on Conan doing something similar and getting a similar backlash. Seems like a waste to get outraged over a joke like that but Colbert's political correctness adviser probably should have caught it before it went over the wire.

Mar. 28 2014 11:56 AM

I believe one is "obligated to go on a fact-finding mission for more context" to the tweet. The very definition of a 140-character structure almost guarantees that most postings will be out of context. I don't see this posting as a blunder. If I am going to accuse someone of racism, I'm going to go beyond the 140-characters and I hope any other educated person would. Then again, this is Michelle Malkin.

Mar. 28 2014 11:49 AM
MrWolf from Somewhere over here.

Some absolutely incredible free publicity for The Colbert Report.

Mar. 28 2014 11:46 AM
Eric Goebelbecker

"But also, if you’re on Twitter and you see what looks, on its face, like a pretty baldly racist joke from a successful media figure, it’s rational to be outraged about it."

Unless the account it came from is associated with a public figure that's famous for playing the role of a tone-deaf conservative/racist buffoon....but why let that get in the way of rationalizing righteous indignation?

Facts have a well-know liberal bias, unless they are being ignored for the sake of a good ol' liberal lynching.

Mar. 28 2014 11:43 AM

My eyes could not roll any harder. How can anybody not understand, in this day and age, that Stephen Colbert is satirically playing a stereotypical conservative? Do these people also believe that Borat was really a guy from Kazakhstan?

Mar. 28 2014 11:40 AM
MrJM from https://twitter.com/MisterJayEm

⒈ Say something "ironically racist" on television,
⒉ Publish it in a format that strips it of its context,
⒊ Express surprise that it was "misinterpreted".

-- MrJM

Mar. 28 2014 11:38 AM

Rational to be outraged? Sure. BUT MAYBE DO YOUR HOMEWORK FIRST!!!!! All to often people fly off the handle before checking out the full story. Fools.

Mar. 28 2014 11:27 AM
Richard Barnes

There is no such thing on the internet as "rational outrage". It's just "internet user default".

Mar. 28 2014 11:02 AM
Kevin McKague from Davison, Michigan

In other words, context is important. Unfortunately we live in a political world where people are often willing to intentionally misunderstand someone in order to have the argument they had their hearts set on having. See "you didn't build that".

Mar. 28 2014 10:35 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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