The New Media

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Filed under: Media Literacy

The Whole Truthiness
by John Capone
MediaPost Publications
March 2008

Has the fake nightly news opened up a surrealistic media realm?

colbertoreilly.jpgNothing you are about to read is true, but it's exactly the way things are. Trust me.

Who knows who Stephen Colbert really is? Who really cares? Certainly not Colbert himself. He was once a kid from Charleston, S.C., who grew up Irish-Catholic and graduated from Northwestern University with artistic pretensions. He is now such a muddle of refracted irony - a paradox of self-reference and false sincerity - and the work of teams of writers, that the actor has disappeared completely into the surrealistic world he's created.

The persona is a media barrage. And this barrage has been embraced by millions - The Colbert Nation. This Nation is comprised of the people who watch his show, bought his book, made him a best seller on iTunes, read magazines (like this one) with profiles of their iconically ironic savior, and those who receive the news and advertising messages accompanying all of these media.

When Colbert addresses his audience on The Colbert Report, he'll often begin with the salutation "Nation," as if he were an earnest Cronkitian figure, but it is this Nation of fans he really means. Especially when he calls on them to vote to name a bridge in Hungary after him (which they did), change the Wikipedia definition of reality to read: "Reality has become a commodity" (which they did), or get him on both the Republican and Democratic presidential ballots in South Carolina (which they very nearly did).

Does all this add up to truthiness in journalism, canny social criticism, infotainment, pure entertainment or is it the high- (but ultimately unfocused) comedic art of an Andy Kaufman prank? The Colbert-cum-Tony Clifton–divisions run deeper than an actor simply taking on a role.

The fake anchor characters of Jon Stewart (and Craig Kilborn before him) who delivered the news with a wry smile and a bit of snark were only the beginning. It was just the same old comedians with a wink and smirk. That had been done on SNL's Weekend Update since before Chevy Chase could pull off a convincing pratfall, anyway. Colbert has gone whole hog.

He's Not There

Stephen Colbert is legion: There's the hard-working actor and writer who graduated from college with serious stage ambitions; then the Second City trouper who practiced improv at the same time as Steven Carell; the scrappy journalist who worked his way up the ranks of local news stations invented in his official Comedy Central bio; the correspondent he played on The Daily Show and the persona of Stephen Colbert adopted for his spin-off show, The Colbert Report. Of course, the current anchor character has some similarities to the clueless correspondent, but for all intents and purposes he is a separate character than the Stephen who riffed against Steve Carell on The Daily Show's "Even Stephven" segments. Then there is the populist who stormed the gates of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, the prankster presidential candidate and the fussy prima donna who shooed away costumed protesters at a book signing in a New York City bookstore (but not at a time when he was pretending to be a fussy prima donna for the crowd).

Since the years Colbert started his career as a sketch-comedy writer and actor, he's slipped effortlessly from one Stephen Colbert to the next, sometimes by merely dropping the hard t from his last name to add to his mock pomposity (which he lampoons by also dropping the sound from the word report in the show's title, but this affectation actually dates back to the actor's Northwestern days when he first sought to reinvent himself). He's done this to marvelous effect, so much so, that when he and Bill O'Reilly appeared on each other's shows, O'Reilly seemed to play gotcha when he confronted Colbert with the fact that his family pronounced the t, and scored the coup of discovering that Colbert was of Irish descent and not, in fact, French despite the Gallic pronunciation.

Then again maybe the host of The O'Reilly Factor was joking. Maybe Bill O'Reilly the conservative blowhard is as much of a put-on as Colbert, or even more so, because O'Reilly plays it completely straight. How much of a family-values neo-con can a guy who leaves voice messages for female co-workers telling them how much he'd like to lather them up in the shower (then go into profane detail) really be? We might, then, likely consider Factor and Report sort of flip sides of the same surrealist journalism coin.

Unlike an actual reporter though, a persona, especially in Stewart-Colbert world, isn't the work of any one man. Lewis Black, whose "Back in Black" rants on The Daily Show, have long been a crowd favorite, has admitted often that he doesn't write any of his own material for the show anymore. "At this point, these guys write me better than I do," he told The New York Times Magazine. The Stephen Colbert who appears nightly and the one who penned the best seller I Am America (And So Can You!) is the work of a group of writers (likely, so is most of O'Reilly's prodigious output, for that matter).

The Word

The Colbert writers did such a good job of obfuscation that the persona, perhaps being taken at face value (and this is shockingly frightening) as a friendly choice, was invited to host the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 2006. Somehow, folks were surprised when Colbert - in front of the President, Karl Rove, God and everyone - unloaded zingers like, "I believe in this president. Guys like us ... know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

This was a moment of Zen where Colbert really made a name for himself as something besides a comedian who could arch an eyebrow. People suspected a genuine journalistic impulse behind a man who would bravely stand up before the emperor himself and point out that, in fact, that emperor has forgotten to bring his clothes to the proceedings.

Beyond this, the remark hinted at where Colbert was going. The term truthiness, which he coined and was named word of the year by Merriam-Webster in 2006, is more than a hedge against the facts or the accuracy equivalent of agnosticism. Colbert first defined it as "the truth we'd like to exist" and derisively as "something you feel in your gut," but it might be something he is arriving at on his show (and his legacy). When Walter Cronkite closed broadcasts with, "That's the way it is," his was an authoritative voice that fit the era. There was a trust in the facts, but the Colbert Nation trusts irony over earnestness. When the newsman tells you he is lying you better believe him.

"Reality is different from, and more than, the totality of facts and events, which anyhow is unascertainable," said the political theorist Hannah Arendt, and this is a lesson that would not be lost on a Colbert audience. Forget what the J-school wonks say, there might be room in our fragmented world for real news that is not interested in being truthful, objective and accurate. Forget fair and balanced.

Hell, this isn't even a new development. Poets, thinkers and scientists have always brought their solipsism to bear. As far back as 360 B.C. in Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes how the images created by shadows on the walls are interpreted differently depending on who's viewing them. In Song of Myself, first published in 1855, Walt Whitman wrote, "Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling / I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling." Now Walt was no journalist, but nobody is going to accuse him of being a liar. Just as when the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said (albeit somewhat flippantly), "The world is everything that is the case," there is always room for truths not expressed through facts - whether in philosophy, politics, literature or journalism. Now, even as far as the news is concerned, our post-post-irony reality is not Newtonian.

Hunter S. Thompson was hailed not only as one of the best writers of the latter half of the last century, but one of the greatest journalists. He often unburdened himself with factual representation, even in his early 20s when he wrote for newspapers. Clifford Ridley, who was Thompson's editor at the National Observer says in the recently published oral biography, Gonzo (Little, Brown, $28.99), "The rich British man hitting golf balls from his penthouse terrace over the downtown slums of Cali, Colombia, in-between sips of his gin and tonic is a little too perfect. He may have embellished just a tad … but there was no arguing over the quality of his writing. He was extraordinary for us and for journalism…." By the time Thompson created his own persona - the gonzo doctor of journalism - he probably made up many of the details of what he reported, but he's remembered now for capturing the greater truth, and this unmooring allowed him to tap into a greater zeitgeist. "Nothing is less real than realism" Georgia O'Keefe wrote, "Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

But in the end, it's that old Nation that will decide the way of truthiness and justice for all. In his new book, The Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence (Routledge, $24.95), Jeffrey Scheuer writes "The ultimate source of subjectivity, however, is neither the message itself nor the messenger, but the receivers: the many diverse subjects that make up the audience. There is simply no telling how people will choose to interpret the information journalists dish out. Even as an abstraction, the media audience is unquantifiable (except in gross terms), complex and constantly changing. It can never be fully understood, mapped or delineated by opinion polls or focus groups. We, the people, are the ultimate wild cards."

photo of Colbert: Westword.com
photo of O’Reilly: Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images