January 22, 2006

Truthiness in journalism

I didn't go to the voting session for the ADS "word of the year" this time, but I sent a proxy with Erin McKean, and when she told me that truthiness had won, I was surprised. It seemed to me to be an overly-specific reference to a particular episode of a TV show, which probably wouldn't have gotten much circulation at all if the NYT hadn't mis-reported it. However, I'm starting to think that I was wrong: truthiness might have some staying power.

Frank Rich's most recent column, "Truthiness 101", is behind the Times Select wall, but as usual is available elsewhere on the web. It contains the best explanation of truthiness that I've seen, in the form of an unusual journalistic admission:

It’s the power of the story that always counts first, and the selling of it that comes second. Accuracy is optional.

Rich intends to describe a state of affairs that he dislikes and blames on politicians. But in fact he's describing the ethos of journalism, as it's generally practiced rather than as it's traditionally preached.

The only thing that prevents the complete fictionalization of journalism, it seems to me, is the adversarial process of complaints from powerful people and contradictory stories from alternative sources, with the implicit threat that these pose to journalistic reputations. The introduction of weblogs into this process is presumably an annoyance for traditional journalists. The task of weaving the raw fibers of truth into an attractive tapestry of truthiness is difficult enough, without millions of bloggers constantly picking at the fabric.

(And the reason that science journalism is so particularly bad, I think, is that scientists have never been especially powerful, and few of them have had easy access to public channels of information. )

From a blogger's point of view, the truthiness of the mainstream media is simply part of what H.L. Mencken called "the daily panorama of human existence", which

is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

Rich ends his column by raising the curtain on a particularly juicy scene:

Fittingly enough against this backdrop, last week brought the re-emergence of Clifford Irving, the author of the fake 1972 autobiography of Howard Hughes that bamboozled the world long before fraudulent autobiographies and biographies were cool. He announced that he was removing his name from “The Hoax,” a coming Hollywood movie recounting his exploits, because of what he judged its lack of fidelity to “the truth of what happened.” That Mr. Irving can return like Rip van Winkle after all these years to take the moral high ground in defense of truthfulness is a sign of just how low into truthiness we have sunk.

That's a robustly truthy peroration. It might even be true. Rich seems to be referring to a paragraph in Ben Sisaro's "Arts, Briefly" columns from 1/16/2006:

"The Hoax," a movie based on Clifford Irving's memoir about his infamous publishing scam - his 1972 "autobiography" of Howard Hughes - is not to be released until later this year, but Mr. Irving has already asked that his name be removed from the credits as its technical consultant. Mr. Irving made the request in a brief letter recently sent to Mark Gordon, one of the producers, and copied to others on the project, including the director, Lasse Hallstrom. In the letter he gave no reason for his decision, but in a recent telephone interview said: "My feeling, based on the script, is that there was more concern for the kind of cigarettes I smoked and the type of suitcase I carried than there was for the truth of what happened." The film's producers responded last week, saying in a statement issued by the studio, Miramax Films: "Clifford Irving's book, 'The Hoax,' contributed greatly to Bill Wheeler's screenplay. Throughout development and production, we reviewed Mr. Irving's notes and incorporated many of them into the script. We deeply regret that he feels this way in advance of seeing the finished movie." Mr. Irving, who spent 16 months in prison for his involvement in the fraudulent Hughes memoir, has also taken umbrage with the film's characters, including his own (portrayed by Richard Gere), as being largely unlikable. PAT H. BROESKE

The implication seems to be that Irving thinks the movie is truthful, in matters like cigarette and suitcase brands, but not truthy, in terms of his (un)likability. If so, then he's taking the moral high ground in defense of truthiness, not truthfulness. Though I admit it makes a better story the other way around.

Anyhow, you can see that the the word truthiness is showing signs of liveliness, and maybe even of life.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 22, 2006 12:13 PM