Hardening battle: Verifiable facts vs. fake news

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

– Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Before the advent of the information glut, it was said for centuries on end, “The facts speak for themselves.”

The belief goes back to a speech by the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero and his declaration, Res ipsa loquitur, Latin for “The thing speaks for itself.”

Yet the facts do not speak for themselves and never have. They must be gathered, put in order, placed in context and narrated with economy for hurried readers and viewers.

“The accumulation of facts is useless until they are related to each other and seen in proportion,” wrote the eminent English historian C.V. Wedgwood.

There is “a hierarchy of facts,” she said; not all facts are created equal. There are conflicting, ambiguous and discordant facts. Banal and minor facts are often mixed in and should be threshed out in news accounts.

“To arrange the facts rightly,” Wedgwood believed, “to distinguish the important from the trivial, to see their bearing upon one another, requires a skill which is very comparable to that of a painter giving significant form to the objects before him, judging the values of light and shade or the spatial dispositions of shape and color.”

Establishing the key facts is the heart of the undertaking. Both oversimplification and excess elaboration can make a news report less instructive and informative. The golden mean as enunciated by Tacitus is “to relate ... without either anger or zeal.”

True facts derive from empirical research – documented evidence that is observable, demonstrable and verifiable. Facts educate and inform when assembled in a narrative. A news article interweaves narrative and analysis.

It is to be kept in mind, however, that a news story is an act of compression, a summary, not a reconstruction of all that happened in a given instance. “No text can fully represent reality,” historian Ronald Mellor reminds readers. Facts are selected “and in the selection itself lie interpretation and distortion.”

Yet, fake news is a horse of an entirely different color. It counterfeits the actual in a mendacious effort to distort and manipulate public opinion for political ends. Candidate Trump claimed, with no evidence, that thousands of Muslims cheered and applauded when they caught sight of the 9/11 disaster in New York City. He accuses the press of the fake news he himself propagates. Fake news is a synonym for propaganda, commonly associated with the 20th century’s two world wars. Actually, it is at least as old as the ancient world.

One reason fake news has appeal is that human nature commonly prefers belief and opinion to critical thinking. Responsible news outlets report the cross-hatching twists and turns of actions and events, an admixture of continuities, reversals and the unforeseen. Sometimes occurrences defy explanation, compounding social anxiety. Elemental forces appear to come into play without evident human volition.

Fake news offers comforting simplicities and a cathartic escape from polyglot human affairs. It is a fierce denial of accident, chance, causal complexity and contingent circumstance. It plays naturally on confirmation bias. All of us gravitate to information that reinforces our biases and preconceptions, which are often unconscious.   

“Let me tell you the emotions on which my facts are based” is a perceptive joke about the frailties of human perception. “Talk of the devil and his horns appear,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked.

We would rather be entertained than informed. Fake news appeals to the desire for the illicit, the lurid, the morbid, the scandalous. Psychologically, it provides cognitive closure, certainty in an uncertain world. Like conspiracy theory, it resolves confusion and detaches the fearful from the cacophony of voices clamoring for attention on the public square, online included. It appeals to the inclination to believe the worst as traditionally exploited by supermarket tabloids. The horrors they cash in on assure readers they have been spared the worst in their own lives, while affording them the pleasures of the voyeur who relives the misfortunes of others vicariously, at a soothing distance. Yellow journalism is a fantasy that distracts the public from political babble and the humiliating feelings of personal insignificance and anonymity inseparable from living in a mass society with hundreds of millions of people. The individual feels submerged and irrelevant.

It is no coincidence false news is thriving when the nation seems at its most divided politically since the Civil War. Many of America’s elites, corporations and government institutions are thought to be unscrupulous and venal. Certainly Wall Street, corporate money and lobbying power rule Washington, which gravely diminishes the impact of voter choices and elections. A national and global oligarchy of the one percent prevails.

Even verifiable facts, empirical evidence and scientific expertise are scoffed at as just another conspiracy theory. Simple falsehoods are easier (and more fulfilling) to believe than the ambiguities, contradictions, ironies and paradoxes that constitute political – indeed human – reality.      

Fake news is a rejection of politics wholesale, not just political correctness. Implicit in Trump’s appeal – “I’m not a politician” – is the outright abolition of politics, the Philistine’s desire to be free of all political conflict and compromise, in favor of a proverbial strongman.    

The rejection of political reason and skeptical inquiry, as it was understood in the 18th century European Enlightenment, is reinforced by the spurning of globalization and modernity. Fake news fuels tribal passions whose destructive power the nation’s Founders feared in their bones. They built a republic because they knew from their assiduous study of history that democracy is self-devouring. The proof was there for all to see in the buckling of classical Athenian democracy, riven by diehard factional strife of the kind abroad in the United States today.   

The division of a country against itself “is the ultimate disaster,” historian Wedgwood warned. Shakespeare dramatized the “disorder, horror, fear and mutiny” that rip and tear the social fabric. 

Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 55, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Most Americans don’t read the Federalist. Some don’t care whether their president, a politically promiscuous, old-fashioned warlord-in-the-making who changes positions with every new poll, is the author and beneficiary of fake news, without regard for its destructive and potentially dangerous consequences.

The populist willingness to indulge his fantasies is a gross attack on rational political life, the elevation of a demonic Babbitt to the Oval Office. Without Madison’s “scepter of reason,” man returns to a state of nature and the tribal savagery one sees in Syria and Iraq, in Afghanistan, Yemen and South Sudan.

Apart from the Civil War over slavery, America has been spared such catastrophes – and dictators – for 240 years. Even so, the prescient, if acerbic, Baltimore newspaperman H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was not sanguine.

“On some great and glorious day,” he warned “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Paul Mann is a former White House correspondent, 1982-2002, who studied presidential decision-making at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government under a 1980 congressional fellowship.


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