Ten years ago this January I published an article about “truthiness.” The word comes from the The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. Colbert did a segment called “The Wørd,” and “Truthiness” was the guest of honor.
We tend to think of public debates, and to some extent even voter choices in elections, as distinguishing between truth and error. But Colbert’s act illustrated that this distinction was false, or at least incomplete. He proposed a neologism: “truthiness.” It caught on and became the American Dialect Society’s 2005 word of the year:
Truthiness (noun): the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.
Colbert occasionally put a suit on truthiness when it was time to step out, calling it “Veritasiness.” Regardless, my point (as I put it in 2007, and I’m just quoting from that paper, don’t blame me for being prescient) was that “Truthiness trumps truth — intuition based on feelings or values is more important than debate and evidence.”
Fact-checkers in pajamas
The blatant disregard for the facts that set off the protests against “fake news” actually preceded Colbert’s segment. In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, there were serious questions raised about George W. Bush’s war record.
On September 4, 2004, the television show 60 Minutes broke the explosive story: Bush had failed to report for a physical while supposedly on active duty. The most important document was a direct written order issued May 4, 1972, by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian.
But shortly thereafter, a variety of bloggers and other voices on the Internet argued that these documents were obviously forgeries. On the night of September 9, the executive vice-president of CBS News, Jonathan Klein, appeared on Fox News to debate Weekly Standard writer and pundit Stephen Hayes, who agreed with the bloggers’ claim. Both Hayes and the host demanded that CBS acknowledge they had been duped, and in fact had no evidence for their claims against Bush.
Jonathan Klein responded with a level of smugness that showed he didn’t realize that CBS’s place as a news source that others would simply defer to was already gone forever.
You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [i.e., fact checkers at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.
That turned out to be true, though not in the way that Mr. Klein intended. After further scrutiny, it is clear that there were significant irregularities in the documents. CBS had failed to authenticate them before going on air with the evidence. But that meant that the “multiple layers of checks and balances” had gotten it wrong, and the bloggers in pajamas had it right: no reputable news source would have used those documents to support that story.
Why had CBS gone ahead, then? Because they believed the story more than they believed in the need for evidence. That is truthiness.
News anchor Dan Rather, in particular, was convinced that George W. Bush had been AWOL, saying that the “essential truth” (Rather’s words) of the claim transcended any nit-picking problems with those particular documents.
Now, even today we can’t be certain, by any means, that the contested documents were actually forgeries. The problem is that there is little reason to believe they are real.
The focus of the argument moved to apparently simple features of the primary letter in particular, the one in which the supposed “direct order” was issued. The most obvious problem was with superscripted letters, in a smaller font size, on military unit numbers (like 41st or 53rd). This way of typing would not be conventional on most military typewriters, as it would have required changing the type ball and manually moving the carriage to create superscripts. This, it was pointed out on dozens of blogs, is nearly impossible to do consistently. Furthermore, other (legitimate) letters from the files at around the same time from the same office showed a completely different, non-proportional typeface.
None of this is proof, of course, but the questions kept coming as more and more people independently studied the letter. There was no conspiracy among the bloggers, no clandestine coordination. Many people looked at the evidence, and concluded it just didn’t hold up. Before long, the supposed “source” for the letter had changed his story about where he had gotten it, and CBS eventually threw in the towel. Dan Rather issued a tepid, narrow apology for the use of the letters, and CBS News fired four people, including the (apparently) overzealous producer Mary Mapes.
Right up until the end, though, Dan Rather defended the story as “essentially” accurate. That is, even though these particular documents might be fake, the story itself was true. On several occasions, as documented in the Thornburg-Boccardi (2005) report and elsewhere, senior CBS personnel (including Dan Rather) flatly stated that they could prove the essential truth of the story. But they had no real evidence, other than their own certainty about the correctness of their views. The president’s guilt was a foregone conclusion; the news producers’ only job was to get the word out.
Fake news is bad news
When Stephen Colbert first talked about “truthiness” and the problem of “essential” or “gut” truths that transcend evidence, trust in the media exceeded 50%. That is, more than 50% of Americans consistently answered “a great deal” or “a fair amount” in response to the question “In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media—such as newspapers, TV, and radio—when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly?” By 2016, this number had fallen to 32%; today it is more like 25%. That is, three-quarters of Americans now answer “not very much” or “almost none.”
That’s bad news for civility, and civic discourse. Every fact is contested, every disagreeable claim is scornfully dismissed. The social function of news media — the curation of facts, a kind of elite intermediation — is indispensable in a world where the flood of information overwhelms our ability to parse and interpret.
Just last year, on November 5, 2016, just three days before the election, the Huffington Post invoked a truthiness of its own. At the time HuffPo’s Ryan Grim, most journalists, believed that Hillary Clinton would almost certainly win the presidency. But the prediction-and-punditry site FiveThirtyEight, headed by Nate Silver, had pointed out that Trump’s polling in many key states was within the margin of error. In other words, Trump could win.
Huff-Po’s response to Silver’s heretical reporting of actual facts was to accuse him of cheating — “putting his thumb on the scale.”
Instead of recognizing that honestly pointing out the problems with conventional wisdom is the key job of the media, HuffPo rejected FiveThirtyEight’s facts and doubled down on its own beliefs. And three days later the sky fell, because it had only been supported by columns of truthiness.
If I have my news, and you have yours, and both of us rely on truthiness — the uncontestable “essential” truth of our beliefs, regardless of facts — it’s impossible to have a conversation. And when people who disagree can’t have a conversation they are much more likely to fight. Ten years ago, when I was first writing about “truthiness,” it was still a pretty new notion, one that seemed kind of funny and whimsical. It’s not that funny now.