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On the first edition of "The Colbert Report," nearly 5 1/2 years ago, Steven Colbert set the tone for his Fox News takeoff by introducing his concept of "truthiness" – basically twisting facts to make a point.
The comedian, who has effectively used the idea to get laughs by calling B.S. on unscrupulous politicians and other powerful prevaricators, raised his game to a new level this week with his Twitter barrage against Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. And thanks to the Internet, it's a meme game we can all play.
A quick recap: During last week's government shutdown chicken match, the GOP lawmaker declared abortion is "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does." Others quickly pointed out that abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood, which became an unlikely focus of the federal budget debate, account for just three percent of the organization’s patient care.
Instead of issuing an apology or a reasonable explanation for the verbal blunder, Kyl's office merely noted that his pronouncement on the floor of the U.S. Senate was "not intended to be a factual statement."
On Monday's show, Colbert took a major swing at this softball lobbed by the minority whip. "That's a liberating defense," he noted – and went on to unleash a hilarious wave of tweets, all with the hashtag/all-purpose disclaimer: #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement.
A mere sampling from Colbert's Twitter account, which has more than 2 million followers:
•"Jon Kyl assassinated Archduke Ferdinand."
•"For the past ten years, Jon Kyl has been two children in a very convincing Jon Kyl suit."
•"Jon Kyl thinks no one can see him when he puts a paper bag on his head."
The public quickly joined in, firing off at one point, as Colbert noted, 46.2 tweets a minute using the hashtag – with some barbs aimed at Kyl, others targeting different perceived liars and too many unfit to repeat here. "Chuck Norris movies are loosely based on Jon Kyl's memoirs" and "Jon Kyl cries while reading Twilight" are two milder examples.
Colbert elevated what would have been just another a one-night bit by taking the joke to Twitter, inviting audience participation. But give Kyl much of the credit: his bungled spin job, whirling with silliness and arrogance, struck a nerve with those sick of the exaggeration and outright lying that permeates much of public life, poisoning discourse on cable news and in Washington, where partisan bickering nearly crippled our government.
In a 2006 interview with “60 Minutes,” Colbert broke from his faux conservative character to offer this definition of his neologism: "Truthiness is what you want the facts to be as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer as opposed to what reality will support."
Kyl’s pithier definition of truthiness – "not intended to be a factual statement” – may have improved on Colbert’s version. The lawmaker, in essence, declared facts don’t matter – not even on the floor of the U.S. Senate, not even during a crisis.
Only there’s nothing very funny about that.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.