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The democratization of facts

Chicago Tribune workplace columnist Rex Huppke wrote an obituary for “facts” the other day that is getting a lot of attention. I thought it might be interesting to examine some of the facts he cites.

Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.

Facts held on for several days after that assault — brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason — before expiring peacefully at its home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372.

Well. According to Politico, Allen was asked, “What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists,” and replied, “That’s a fair question. I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.”

That’s where the video ends — but according to West’s spokesman, he went on to say, “It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”

According to Talking Points Memo, West on Tuesday clarified what he meant:

“There’s a very thin line between communism, progressivism, Marxism, socialism — or even, as Mark Levin has said, statism. It’s about nationalizing production, it’s about creating and expanding the welfare state. It’s about this idea of social and economic justice. And you hear that being played out — you know, now with fairness, fair share, economic equality, shared sacrifice, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.”

So is this a fact — or is it an opinion, like talking about a “war on women” or calling right-wingers “facists”? A bit of hyperbole to get the blood pumping, but not a statement to be taken literally.

At the very least, Huppke is wrong that West’s statement was offered “without a scrap of evidence or reason.”

Huppke continues,

Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.

Now… I’m not really sure what the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal has to do with facts. What is Huppke talking about here? It reads like nonsense to me. Regarding Iraq, a “justification” is of course not a factual statement — it’s an opinion. But let’s concede the larger point here, that there were factual claims made by the Bush administration about Iraq’s WMD program that turned out not to be true. This is of course not new — presidents have been making false claims for decades. I’ll grant Hupke’s point about Obama’s citizenship unreservedly, though.

Moving on…

Facts was wounded repeatedly throughout the recent GOP primary campaign, near fatally when Michele Bachmann claimed a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease causes mental retardation.

Here’s what Bachmann said last year:

“There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences.”

Bachmann later told the AP:

“All I was doing is relaying what a woman had said. I relayed what she said. I wasn’t attesting to her accuracy. I wasn’t attesting to anything.”

Bachmann also told Sean Hannity she didn’t know if the drug could cause those side effects. “I have no idea,” she said. “I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. I am not a physician. All I was doing was reporting what a woman told me last night at the debate.”

I don’t this is hair-splitting — words mean things. Bachmann clearly didn’t “claim” that “a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease causes mental retardation,” any more than I would be claiming that facts are dead if I say “Rex Huppke says facts are dead.”

Bachmann did give credence to the idea that the HPV vaccine could cause mental retardation, in a way that I think was irresponsible for a public figure. But I think someone writing an obituary about the death of facts should, y’know, be sure to get their facts really really straight.

More Huppke:

In December, Facts was briefly hospitalized after MSNBC’s erroneous report that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign was using an expression once used by the Ku Klux Klan.

Well…. apparently the KKK did indeed use the organizing slogan “Keep America American.” Romney has said, on a couple of occasions, “Keep America America,” once adding “by retaining its character as the land of opportunity” and another time “with the principals that made us the greatest nation on Earth.” I think MSNBC was right to apologize — Erik Wemple reports they did so because managers thought the network should have done some reporting before simply repeating a blog item on the air. Amen to that. As factual errors go, this isn’t exactly a whopper — the bigger problem is that it’s simply unfair — but Huppke is correct that the report is erroneous. Still, not the exactly the strongest example.

So of the six cited by Hupke, IMHO half are true, one is wrong, one is really an opinion and one is too muddled to judge. That’s not a great track record.

Toward the bottom of his piece, Hupke quotes New York University English professor Mary Poovey as saying, “American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative. Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”

Actually — what’s happened is, facts have been democratized. Americans are suspicious of authorities, and with good reason. People are not going to just trust that a drug is safe just because the Food and Drug Administration says so, or believe pronouncements from the New York Times just because it’s the Times. “And that’s the way it is” — that’s how Walter Cronkite signed off his show for two decades. Can anyone imagine that today?

A few summers ago I worked as an obituary writer and a big part of my job was combing through old news clips via Nexis — it was surprising to see just how much reporters even a few decades ago would use opaque statements like “it is believed that,” without explanation, casting themselves as all-knowing authorities. Nowadays, at the last media organization I worked for, reporters couldn’t even say “so-and-so could not be reached for comment” without explaining exactly what steps the reporter took to reach them. It’s all about transparency, even at the expense of narrative writing.

Ultimately we’ve jettisoned the idea that there’s any one institution so trustworthy that we should accept their assertions without scrutiny. What constitute the facts are up for debate, and one person’s opinion can ultimately be just as good as anyone else’s — if they can back up their assertions.

Facts aren’t dead — they’ve just been liberated from their long imprisonment by the authorities … and it’s the big institutions that are on their last legs.

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