US comic Stephen Colbert apologises, says 'racist' tweet lacked context

Stephen Colbert apologies for furore but denies accusations of racism towards Asian Americans

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 8:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:51am

In his first night on the air since a campaign to #CancelColbert erupted on Twitter, Stephen Colbert responded to charges of racial insensitivity to Asians.

The controversy began last Thursday when The Colbert Report's Twitter account quoted a joke from the March 26 episode of the show that mocked Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for setting up a charity to aid native Americans in lieu of changing his team's name. Colbert said he was inspired by Snyder to start his own charity, called "The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Out of context, however, some Twitter users thought the joke was offensive to Asian Americans, and within hours #CancelColbert was a top trending subject on the website.

Colbert humorously referred to the controversy on his personal Twitter account, StephenAtHome but waited until Monday night to issue a full response.

Colbert explained that the joke originated in a segment about Snyder's charity that was rebroadcast multiple times last Thursday without incident. It was only when his show's promotional Twitter account repeated the joke, without a link to the segment or a mention of Snyder's charity that a backlash ensued.

"Who would have thought a means of communication limited to 140 characters would ever create misunderstandings?" Colbert said.

Although he acknowledged why the tweet was misunderstood, Colbert expressed little sympathy for his critics. "When I saw the tweet without context, I understood how people were offended the same way I as an Irish American was offended after reading only one line of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal: "Eat Irish babies," he said, referring to the essay in which the famed satirist urged impoverished Irish parents to sell their children to the wealthy as food.

Colbert urged his followers to stop harassing the hashtag activist Suey Park, who initiated the Twitter campaign against him and has since been subjected to criticism online.

And he reserved some of his most obvious displeasure for "the brain trust" at Comedy Central that decided to delete the original tweet once "the twit hit the fan" and, especially, for the news media.

The #CancelColbert controversy spawned a flurry of news stories in outlets including Time, The New Yorker and Salon, the last of which ran seven separate items on the controversy. Even CNN took a break from covering the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 "to report spotting what they thought was the wreckage of my show off the coast of Australia."

Worst of all for Colbert, he was attacked by "fellow conservative" Michelle Malkin, who taught him about sensitivity to the Asian-American experience with her book, In Defence of Internment, which defended the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the second world war.

"To recap, a web editor I've never met posts a tweet in my name on an account I don't control, outrages a hashtag activist and the news media gets 72 hours of content," Colbert said. "The system worked."