When Truthiness Surpasses Truth

Stephen Colbert was awarded the “Word of the Year” award from Merriam-Webster’s 2006 contest. The word was truthiness, defined by Colbert as “truth that comes from the gut, not books,” and defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/06words.htm ; http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/24039/october-17-2005/the-word—truthiness) Why would popular vote demand to see “truthiness” added to the dictionary? Perhaps there’s a certain truthiness about the word truthiness, or a desire to define a phenomenon already occurring stemming from an inability to define truth itself.

In our discussion on truth, one of the biggest questions that arose was what is truth? Although the truth might be easily dismissed by existentialists and post-modernists, the public seeks for truth in its basest sense, and journalists strive to find and present that truth. But what is the truth which journalists and the public thrive upon? In early printing days, “truth” was political message. It was revolutionary and independent thought. In the proceeding years, the “truth” which journalists reported seemed to focus more on news, meaning propagation of things that had already happened, not so much an exposure of fact. But this was truth. It was a reproduction of events that actually happened. By all rights, journalists were indeed writing the “truth.” But somewhere in the back of public mind, or public gut, there seemed to be an inherent itch for truthiness which eventually overwhelmed the previous notion of truth.

“By 1938, journalism textbooks were beginning to quetion how truthful the news could really be” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 39). But why the change, and why then? A year previous, a movie portraying the story of a man who used his journalistic influence to not report news, but to expose truth. “The Life of Emile Zola” demonstrated the power of muckraking journalism and the difference between reporting news (what everyone saw on the surface) and exposing the truth (the facts that people weren’t as aware of). Then in the early 1970’s when reporters looked at Nixon and his administration with distrustful gazes, eventually exposing the Watergate scandal. That was truth which answered to public truthiness.

Since that time, journalists seem to have set their story-finding-radars on high sensitivity to truthiness. The idea of using their gut in uncovering the truth which others have tried to hide has been the basis for many films reflecting at least in part the sentiment that following one’s gut is the best way to discover the truth.  1944, the movie Double Indemnity was produced. In this film, Keyes, the smelling dog for false insurance claims, relies heavily on his own truthiness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SojaL9M5Pqs Within the first minute and a half of this clip, Keyes goes back to the “little man” inside of him repeatedly, ignoring the logical news-like explanation for the death of a man with a double indemnity clause and instead Keyes continues to dig into other possible answers that satisfy the little man inside his gut, or as Colbert would say, his sense of truthiness.

When does truthiness surpass truth? Perhaps it’s when Keyes’ little man is validated by the end of the movie when truthiness matched actual truth and not news-truth. Perhaps it was when Nixon’s secrets were unearthed from the deep recesses of “truth” as the government would have had the public believe, and truthiness prevailed in that extrication process. Perhaps as journalists have been so unclear, as Kovach and Rosenstiel mention, about the definition of truth, people have become more involved with their truthiness, or their little men/women that journalistic “truth” doesn’t always jive with their own sense of truthiness in the world. Whatever the case may be, there seems to be the sense that one’s gut is generally a reliable source for the truth which the public and journalists seek. Journalists use this truthiness to detect stories worth printing, and the public uses their sense of truthiness to decipher from the journalists’ stories what is true.

This conjecture that individuals’ sense of truthiness is overcoming the truth as defined in earlier decades decidedly lends to questions about how personal biases influence the validity of inner truthiness in comparison with an absolute truth. Indeed, there are no guts without personal paradigms, but for the twenty-first century, it seems that these paradigms are favored over naive acceptance of what journalists or anyone else says is truth. “I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books–they’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. . . . That’s where the truth comes from: your gut.”  Truthiness is the power of an individual to decide for him or herself what the truth is. All journalists can do is use their own senses to give the public enough information to use their inherent gut-feelings in a responsible manner; for as Ebenezer Scrooge said, “a little thing affects [the senses]. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.” Journalists help to prevent slight disorders of the stomach from cheating the public of the truth . . . or truthiness in the world.

Carli Hanson

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2 Responses to When Truthiness Surpasses Truth

  1. Pingback: never.with.silence

  2. heymace says:

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