Fact-based truth matters 

December 15, 2019 7:46 am
Person reading Fake News article via Mike MacKenzie, CC

Person reading Fake News article via Mike MacKenzie, CC

To the uninitiated, it must have sounded like a journalists’ version of debating how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Or should that be pen?

The debate at some conference long ago went something like this: What’s more important in journalism, reporting facts or reporting truth?

Most journalists, it seems to me, fall into the facts camp because it better aligns with our view of ourselves as objective, balanced, just-the-facts-ma’am observers. Facts are incontrovertible.

Truth is thought of as, well, more subjective. The popular view seems to be that people can sift through the same facts and come to their own truths, distilled through their own perceptions.

The question in our fevered times, however, is whether “truth” completely divorced from — or expediently ignoring — fact is really truth, no air quotes necessary around the word. 

No it isn’t.

"Facts & Truth" written on lined paper
Photo by David Mulder (CC BY SA 2.0)

Here’s what else is incontrovertible: Where facts are involved, some truths are truer; some truths are simply more factual. Yes, because of indisputable facts, some things are actually true and others are not — or less likely to be —your individual filter or perception be damned.

And this leads to my fervent wish during this holiday impeachment season and for the New Year: that we emerge from these current travails with a sense of reverence for, not just facts, but fact-based truth. 

The absence of this reverence is evident. We seem to stand in awe of what is cleverly or brazenly stated —“telling it like it is.” We embrace that which resonates with our inner narratives and biases. 

Examples abound, but let’s take a current one: impeachment — a vote on which is expected this week in the House. 

The facts are not credibly in dispute. President Trump pressured a foreign head of state — by withholding military aid and a White House meeting — to investigate a political rival for the president’s own political benefit. Yes, by all means read that “perfect” transcript —which perfectly reveals the president doing what he is accused of: “Do us a favor though.”

On obstruction, Republicans simultaneously slam as insufficient the abundant evidence of quid pro quo because we don’t hear from the people in a position to know firsthand. Yet there is  no objection about the president withholding the testimony and documents that will prove or disprove this. 

Trumps words  “do us a favor though” are what  supporters especially suppress, ignore or contort. In their—and the president’s— telling, it is not an appeal for personal benefit but one directed at Ukraine’s more general state of corruption. They make this argument even though Trump, in his phone  call and more generally, has not evidenced any concern for more generalized corruption and specifically directs Ukraine to do something that will benefit him directly.

Yet the GOP-controlled Senate — barring some miracle —will take the House’s articles of impeachment and acquit the president. This, of course, depends on the House approving the articles, the reluctance of “moderate” Democrats fearful of hurting their reelection chances is a newish wrinkle in that regard.

But, again, the facts are not credibly in dispute. To the extent they are disputed, it is in a fashion that requires one to park his or her rationality and common sense at the door. 

The Senate might not even call witnesses. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell clearly wants a quick trial and acquittal. In other words, don’t bother him or the GOP Senate with the facts. Their “truth” is more important.

Other examples tell the same tale.

Climate change? The facts are that too much carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat and make the Earth warmer. Humankind is emitting more of these gases. The Earth is, even now, feeling the effects — melting ice, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events, amid the hottest years in record. Global catastrophe beckons.

For too many, however — including our climate-change-denier-in-chief — the truth that these facts lead to is, to borrow a  phrase, inconvenient.

Immigration? Immigrants a net plus for the economy and they commit less crime than the native-born. But facts don’t matter. Hence, the “truth” that undocumented immigrants are a scourge and infestation. 

Which is more important to a journalist, facts or truth? It’s actually a question more appropriately directed to all of us. To you.

Here’s hoping you have a truthful, fact-based 2020. We need it.

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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.