By Michael Winship, BuzzFlash
February 8, 2006
Cable hosts and politicians are increasingly making statements with
no foundation in the facts. As with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the
truth may soon catch up with them.
There's an old saying that politicians use statistics like a drunk
uses a lamppostmore for support than illumination. Increasingly,
it seems all manner of facts and figures are manipulated, massaged or
just plain made up to fit an existing set of beliefs, regardless of
the actual truth.
Last fall, Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central's Colbert Report, came
up with a word to describe this phenomenon: "truthiness."
"I'm not a fan of facts," he pronounced, in his best, Bill
O'Reilly-like persona. "You see, facts can change, but my opinions
will never change, no matter what the facts are."
"Truthiness" touched a nerve. The American Dialect Society proclaimed
it their 2005 Word of the Year, and a Google search turns up 2.5
million references to "truthiness," from play-by-play analyses of the
president's State of the Union Address and NSA shenanigans to attacks
on James Frey's pseudomemoir A Million Little Pieces.
Now, even columnists, those ink-stained knaves of the media, have
stolen, er, embraced it as a subject. Truthiness, after all, is what
we're all about.
Colbert explained further in a recent issue of the satirical
newspaper The Onion, itself
a bastion of truthiness: "It used to be, everyone was entitled to
their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case
anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's
certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his
choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to
exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a
certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the
American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or
what is true? "Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing]
anyone else says could possibly be true ' There's not only an
emotional quality, there's a selfish quality."
In politics, manifestations of truthiness are nonstop, ranging from
the childish to the insidious. The Feb. 4 New York Times reported
that aides to New York State gubernatorial candidate William Weld had
"significantly altered" two newspaper articles running on Weld's
website, removing anything that was perceived as negative: cutting
paragraphs, headlines like "Campaign May Be Down, But Weld Certainly
Isn't" and such phrases as "dogged by an investigation."
Although the Times could find no evidence on other campaigns'
websites to support his claim, Weld spokesman Dominick Ianno
insisted, "every other candidate is doing the same thing." Now that's
A front page article in that same day's Washington Post detailed
problems Wikipedia, the popular internet encyclopedia written and
edited by volunteers, is having with congressional staff members and
other government employees tampering with its website entries.
An intern removed a reference to Massachusetts Congressman Martin
Meehan's pledge to limit his service to four terms. He's now in his
seventh. Someone changed venerable West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd's
age from 88 to 180. Another claimed Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn "was
voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress." And those
are just three of the more benign examples. Wikipedia had to block
certain Capitol Hill email addresses to prevent further vandalism,
or, if you will, petty truthiness.
But when it comes to truthiness in the third degree, preparations for
the trial of former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby for
perjury and making false statements are providing a mother lode of
The judge wanted the trialcentering on Libby's leak to
journalists of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent to
discredit her husband Joe Wilsonto begin in the fall. Libby's
lawyer's claim to a scheduling conflict has moved it to next January,
two months, conveniently, after the midterm elections.
Although Libby claimed he first heard about Plame's identity from
NBC's Tim Russert, the Feb. 4 Washington Post reported Libby
"acknowledged to investigators that [Vice President] Cheney told him
in mid-June 2003 about Plame's CIA role and said she helped send her
husband on a mission to Niger to determine whether Iraq was seeking
nuclear material from the African nation."
Libby also claimed he never mentioned Plame during a July 7, 2003,
luncheon with then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer testified otherwise.
The defense being prepared for Libby seems to center around the
contentions that many in the press already knew about Plame's
identity before he leaked it to reporters and that the contradictions
between his testimony and that of others are simply due to
work-related stress and forgetfulness. A court filing contends that,
"Mr. Libby was immersed throughout the relevant period in urgent and
sensitive matters, some literally matters of life and death.
"In the constant rush of more pressing matters, any errors he made in
his FBI interviews or grand jury testimony, months after the
conversations, were the result of confusion, mistake or faulty
memory, rather than a willful intent to deceive."
Ah, wake up and smell the truthiness. That could be perceived as a
plausible explanation, the Los Angeles Times wrote on Feb. 4, "but it
could also suggest to a jury that he is self-important and thinks
that top government officials somehow have less responsibility to be
honest than ordinary citizens. The argument boils down to 'I'm too
busy to tell the truth,' said Daniel Richman, a former federal
prosecutor who is a professor of criminal law at Fordham University
Law School in New York, adding that a jury would probably have
trouble with that defense."
Libby's defense team is asking for 10 months of notes, emails and
documents gathered by the prosecution from Vice President Cheney's
office, 10,000 pages worth. Such materials, from May 2003 through
March 2004, will, they maintain, prove Libby's workload, heavy
responsibilities and importance.
Among those documents are the highly confidential Presidential Daily
Briefings, which raises an interesting question as to why Special
Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wanted them in the first place, whether
they contain anything about Joe Wilson's trip to Niger or Valerie Plame.
What's more, responding to the Libby request for information,
Fitzgerald informed the defense that not all of the White House's
2003 email was properly archived. According to the New York Daily
News, Fitzgerald wrote "that many emails from Cheney's office at the
time of the Plame leak in 2003 have been deleted contrary to White
House policy." A truthiness-heavy flashback to Nixon's secretary
Rosemary Woods and the infamous, "accidentally" erased 18 minutes of
tape is as inevitable as it is irresistible.
Meanwhile, as it silently ticks away in the background, we forget
that Fitzgerald's grand jury continues to meet once or twice a week,
quietly weighing evidence that will or will not lead to the
indictment of Karl Rove.
In the end, truthiness may set him free.
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former
writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger
Post Newspapers in upstate New York. Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers