Truthiness in Newsweek

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Feb 6 02:14:11 UTC 2006

The Truthiness Teller
Stephen Colbert loves this country like he loves himself. Comedy
Central's hot news anchor is a goofy caricature of our blustery
culture. But he's starting to make sense.

By Marc Peyser

Feb. 13, 2006 issue - We live in a dangerous world. Fortunately, we've
got Stephen Colbert fighting on our side. Colbert defends America when
lesser men cut and run. Got a problem with White House wiretapping? He
doesn't. "This is a war against secret enemies that may not end,"
Colbert has told the world. "Don't we need secret powers that have no
limit?" Doubts about Iraq? "Doesn't taking out Saddam feel right?" he
asks. When Colbert criticizes something like the Abu Ghraib Prison
scandal, it's not the policy he dislikes $B!= (Bit's the missed opportunity.
"It's time to bring torture back to this side of the pond and put
Americans back to work," he says. The biggest threat facing America
now, Colbert says, isn't Iraq or Al Qaeda, or even Simon Cowell. It's
the Associated Press.
Story continues below  $B"- (B advertisement

What earned Colbert's ire was an AP story last month about the
American Dialect Society's "word of the year." The word is
"truthiness," which, if you want to get technical, isn't a word at
all. But by now you've probably figured out that Colbert isn't exactly
for real, either. He's the host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert
Report," a takeoff of talk-show blowhards like Bill O'Reilly and Joe
Scarborough. When the "Report" debuted last October, Colbert made
clear that his mantra would be truthiness, a devotion to information
that he wishes were true even if it's not. "I'm not a fan of facts,"
he intoned. "You see, facts can change, but my opinion will never
change, no matter what the facts are." The Dialect Society was
impressed enough to honor "truthiness" $B!= (Bthey're still looking for those
WMD, too $B!= (Bdespite its obviously comedic derivation. But when the AP ran
a story about the award, it didn't mention Colbert. "It's like
Shakespeare still being alive and not asking him what 'Hamlet' is
about," fumed Colbert, who promptly put out an APB on the AP. So the
AP ran a story about Colbert's angry reaction to its omission, too.
Not bad coverage for a phony news anchor.

Then everything got really postmodern. In the past month, truthiness $B!= (Ba
fake word by a fake newsman $B!= (Bhit the big time. It became part of the
discussion about James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," after
Oprah Winfrey told Larry King the book "still resonates with me" even
though Frey invented some of it. (She later changed her mind, but did
that stop people from buying the book?) New York Times columnist Frank
Rich used truthiness to explain everything from the pumped-up
biography of Judge Samuel Alito to the phoniness of Nick and Jessica's
made-for-MTV love affair. "What matters most now is whether a story
can be sold as truth, preferably on television," Rich wrote, adding,
"We live in the age of truthiness."


--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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