“On October 30, I’m holding the march to Keep Fear Alive, unless the sun explodes incinerating half the earth and casting the other half into eternal night, which many scientists could say might happen.”
Stephen Colbert famously created a new word for our times: “truthiness.” Even though it’s a nonsensical term, I feel its meaning in my gut. Colbert uttered our sentence of the week on his September 28 broadcast. The sentence and especially that last phrase capture the idea of truthiness completely.
The sentence hangs on the audience’s understanding of an epidemic of bad journalism that is sweeping the country. Name newspapers and high-caliber TV news organizations have joined the sorry masses of schlock journalists in a scourge of poor research, misrepresentation, and talking-point reporting.
News watchers can identify the blight by the use of certain phrases. “It has been reported…” “Some say…” “Experts have noted…” Colbert’s audience knows that when those phrases appear an unsubstantiated “fact” will follow, and news will sidle over into opinion with barely a whisper.
“Which many scientists say might happen,” with the “could” removed, would be welcomed on the nightly news broadcasts and cable politics shows. In fact, it may be a direct quote. The information would have the backing of the authority of the news organization, which people trust. (Although that trust is declining rapidly.) In truth, the many scientists might number 15 while the scientists in disagreement could number thousands. That fact would not be reported because the information would not fit the perspective of either the reporter or the news organization. As Mark Twain said long ago, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And as people are fond of saying these days, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”
By inserting “could” Colbert tweaks both the sentence and the news organizations that have fallen into such poor form. Those of us in the know feel just a little smarter and better about ourselves. Truthiness, indeed.
I almost forgot. It’s funny, too.