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The Truthiness Teller

Stephen Colbert loves this country like he loves himself. Comedy Central's hot news anchor is a goofy caricature of our blustery culture. But he's starting to make sense.
F. Scott Schafer for Newsweek
By By Marc Peyser

Feb. 13, 2006 issue - We live in a dangerous world. Fortunately, we've got Stephen Colbert fighting on our side. Colbert defends America when lesser men cut and run. Got a problem with White House wiretapping? He doesn't. "This is a war against secret enemies that may not end," Colbert has told the world. "Don't we need secret powers that have no limit?" Doubts about Iraq? "Doesn't taking out Saddam feel right?" he asks. When Colbert criticizes something like the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, it's not the policy he dislikes-it's the missed opportunity. "It's time to bring torture back to this side of the pond and put Americans back to work," he says. The biggest threat facing America now, Colbert says, isn't Iraq or Al Qaeda, or even Simon Cowell. It's the Associated Press.

What earned Colbert's ire was an AP story last month about the American Dialect Society's "word of the year." The word is "truthiness," which, if you want to get technical, isn't a word at all. But by now you've probably figured out that Colbert isn't exactly for real, either. He's the host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," a takeoff of talk-show blowhards like Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough. When the "Report" debuted last October, Colbert made clear that his mantra would be truthiness, a devotion to information that he wishes were true even if it's not. "I'm not a fan of facts," he intoned. "You see, facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are." The Dialect Society was impressed enough to honor "truthiness"-they're still looking for those WMD, too-despite its obviously comedic derivation. But when the AP ran a story about the award, it didn't mention Colbert. "It's like Shakespeare still being alive and not asking him what 'Hamlet' is about," fumed Colbert, who promptly put out an APB on the AP. So the AP ran a story about Colbert's angry reaction to its omission, too. Not bad coverage for a phony news anchor.

Then everything got really postmodern. In the past month, truthiness-a fake word by a fake newsman-hit the big time. It became part of the discussion about James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," after Oprah Winfrey told Larry King the book "still resonates with me" even though Frey invented some of it. (She later changed her mind, but did that stop people from buying the book?) New York Times columnist Frank Rich used truthiness to explain everything from the pumped-up biography of Judge Samuel Alito to the phoniness of Nick and Jessica's made-for-MTV love affair. "What matters most now is whether a story can be sold as truth, preferably on television," Rich wrote, adding, "We live in the age of truthiness."

And Colbert-a man who once declared, "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you"-has become the age's semiofficial pundit. A congressman from Georgia asked him to be his guest at the State of the Union address. (He declined.) Someone at the Pentagon just invited him to lunch. (Ditto.) That's heady stuff for a guy whose show reaches just 1.1 million or so viewers a night-and stuff's about to get even headier. In April, Colbert will perform at the White House correspondents' dinner, where he'll stand next to-and poke fun at-the president himself. "I'm so excited," Colbert says, "I'm going to levitate." Which is exactly what you'd expect from someone filled with hot air.

"The Colbert Report" is a spinoff from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," where Colbert spent six years perfecting what he calls a "well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-class idiot." "The Colbert Report"-he pronounces his name like it's French (col-BEAR), so he naturally does the same thing with "Report" (re-POR)-covers much the same territory as its source. Both shows dissect the idiocy and hypocrisy of politicians and the media, and both do it with eyebrows cocked clear to the top of their heads. The difference is that, with the Colbert character at its center, the "Report" is much more freewheeling and silly. The show's signature segment is called "The Wørd"-that slash through the "o" is a metaphor for Colbert's penchant for butchering words when he really thinks he's celebrating them. This is where "truthiness" was born, but Colbert has also fixated on "bacchanalia," "wham-o" and "double-stick tape," which allowed him to discourse on the merits of the Miss America pageant and the manner in which contestants keep their bikinis in place. It's all a takeoff of O'Reilly's "Talking Points" segment, and it's captioned like O'Reilly's too. Only Colbert's captions often mock him. "I don't trust books. They're all fact and no heart," he said once, while the caption read: "Heart good, head bad." Gøod stuff.

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