When comedian Stephen Colbert launched his show, The Colbert Report (2005), he introduced the word "truthiness" to the U.S. public. Speaking in character as a bloviating right-wing pundit, Colbert explained that truthiness was thinking from the gut, ignoring facts, and holding beliefs with no basis in reality.
At the time, his main target was George W. Bush, who had repeatedly told the U.S. public during his presidency that things he felt were necessarily true. The word also emerged in response to claims by the administration that the War in Iraq was about finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. You can watch the segment where he calls the WMD justification a flat out lie here:
It didn't take long for "truthiness" to enter widespread use and it was named the Word of the Year by Webster's in 2006. In those early days, the word held the punch of satire and it encouraged critical thinking about the ways that truth was increasingly absent from policy decisions, media coverage, and public perceptions.
But whatever the context for the word's role in 2005, we have clearly hit a new era in political discourse where truthiness trumps truth all the time with little, if any, repercussions. The proof is in last week's Republican National Convention where truthiness was alarmingly on display at a rate we have never seen in U.S. history.
Each day as the speeches wound down, media outlets dedicated stories to fact-checking the speeches. After Paul Ryan's speech, Joan Walsh of Salon.com wrote that "Paul Ryan gave a feisty anti-Obama speech that will have fact-checkers working for days." CBS News reported that most of the major claims made by Ryan about Obama's record were misleading and untrue. Ryan then kept up his pattern of truthiness after the RNC when he lied about his best time in a marathon, shaving off more than an hour from his finish time. Seriously?
The master of truthiness-checking himself, Stephen Colbert also gave his audience his own version of the truth. Watch the clip where he fact-check's Ryan speech here:
Ryan's lying was followed by Romney's. Perhaps even more disturbingly, some media reporting found comfort in the fact that Romney's speech was not as lie-ridden as Ryan's. According to USAToday the good news is that Romney's speech mostly included "puffery and exaggeration" in comparison to Ryan's flat-out lying:
In a speech heavy on anecdotal history but short on policy details, Mitt Romney avoided major falsehoods in making his case to the American public while accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention. Even a key Democratic strategist, Bill Burton, a former press secretary for President Obama, tweeted shortly after the speech ended: "Romney actually avoided almost all of the lies from Ryan's speech."
While he may have avoided the same lies as Ryan, Romney's speech had its own fair share of falsehoods too.
And lest it seem like the fact-checking was simply a partisan matter, Sally Kohn of Fox News wrote that "to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan's speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."
So given the fact that we have learned that the RNC was full of falsehoods, why aren't the liars suffering from backlash? Why aren't their supporters enraged that the candidates they support were incapable of stating their positions and describing their differences with Obama without lying? Has the Republican Party simply given up on truth and embraced truthiness?
According to the Romney campaign's pollster Neil Newhouse it has. After the media questioned the accuracy of speeches at the RNC, he explained that "we're not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
The politicians lied. The media proved the lies. But does anyone care? Nope.
Or at least they don't care enough. Polls showed that the RNC gave the Romney ticket a bump that now puts them in the lead. While post-convention bumps are considered common, it is worth asking why the lying and the public knowledge of it didn't make any difference. Shouldn't their numbers have gone down? Is our knowledge of political truthiness now just a joke with no punch line?
When Colbert first described truthiness his hope was that he could encourage the U.S. public to expect the truth from the nation's leaders. Colbert's truthiness was a joke -- but it was a joke that was meant to be taken seriously. In the world of satire the idea is to mock in a way that makes a difference. First we spot the truthiness and then we do something about it.
The worrying trend today is that even when there is abundant evidence of lying, there are no repercussions. It's a case of lying and loving it. And it needs to be stopped. If on Election Day we no longer care about the difference between truth and truthiness, then the joke will be on us.
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