How I Learned the Facts of Life

No, not those facts. The other ones. You know, the facts, as opposed to political opinions.

I’ve been pondering facts lately, particularly because–especially after this election–the news media have been agonizing publicly over what they sense is a rejection of their role as reliable truth-tellers. Since I’ve also been assaulted by furious, not entirely rational, commentary blaming the media for, well, poisoning my mind and/or failing to properly brainwash other minds, I get why journalists are self-flagellating.

But journalism is not omnipotent. The election process and results are down to the voters. If they fail to educate themselves even minimally about the candidates and the issues, it’s their fault, not the media’s.

So I’m here to let the media off the hook–although I suggest we drop the notion of “truth,” with its sanctimonious aura. Let’s stick to “facts.” “Facts” are good enough for me.

Every morning, an excellent newspaper, the New York Times, delivers itself to my front door. Its worldwide coverage by smart, numerous reporters gives me information about places, events and issues I can’t possibly dig out by myself.

That’s the paper’s job: deliver the news, tell me what has happened, and tell me what it thinks about what has happened. I don’t hold The Times responsible for how I evaluate the news and accumulate facts. That’s my job, and I’m very good at it. I was well educated.

Senior year in public high school I took a political science course taught by a terrific teacher, Larry Fink. There I absorbed the most significant lesson I ever got out of formal schooling: how to read newspapers.

At that time New York had seven daily papers. Larry canvassed the class and assigned seven of us to bring in the papers our families had at home.

Our class entered the project with the proposition that a news report was factual, while political opinions were corralled within the op-ed pages. Each day we read out loud one major news story as each paper reported it, and compared each paper’s version to the others.

We were shocked. (Shocked!) Out of every lead news paragraph, we were able to glean only a couple of factual sentences. The rest of the paragraph was attitude.

Sure, we expected this from the tabloids, but serious newspapers? Yep. More subtle, more gracefully written than the tabloids, sure, but even respected newspapers like the Times wrapped facts in suggestive phrases.

News writing had some bias. (What? You thought this was a 21st century
thing?)

That lesson settled immediately into the fold of my brain retaining vital automatic processes like touch typing. Ever since, I read the news to get facts the way Larry Fink taught us. Since I don’t always agree with the newspaper’s presentation, my reading is a lively, occasionally disputatious process.

What do I do? I skip over clickbait headlines, mentally pluck off snark and tendentious modifying phrases, and reduce swollen verbs to their basic roots, until the facts are cleanly revealed.

That’s the Larry Fink Method. If you’ve read this, you’ve already learned it, no homework required. From now on you should be hard pressed to ignore the Method when you read the news.

But you do need to read the news. While TV is OK for debates and sports–events that allow us to hear and view the unexpurgated whole scope without distortions–even a sophisticated mind can’t tease complex facts out of heavily edited, selectively weighted and histrionic TV news reportage, let alone pundits jousting and talking over each other.

No, the only way to absorb facts is to get your hands dirty with newsprint.

Nowadays, I get my hands dirty with two daily newspapers, one a tabloid, and deepen the news with three serious magazines. Since I’ve spotted significant and even contradictory facts buried in penultimate paragraphs, I read to the end of every story pricking my curiosity.

The Method also works beautifully as a no-fact detector. It has carried me through Klieg-lit “scandals” like “Whitewater,” kicked off by investigative narratives so convoluted, so larded with ominous language, it took a rigorous application of the Larry Fink Method to mince them into nothingburgers.

After reading the newspapers, I check in with web sites of all political persuasions. Sure, I enjoy juicy rumors but won’t grant them fact status until I see them reported elsewhere. (It may come as a surprise but, for the most part, I find that the facts I get online confirm the facts I’ve already harvested from newspapers, even when slanted differently.)

As I learned in high school, every news medium displays some political lean, but facts themselves do not. It’s the strength of great news writing to thrill, move or anger us with stories well told. Yes, a journalist’s personal impressions of an event are conveyed by choice of words, but no matter how provocative the language, the facts in those stories are just…facts.

Not to my old friend,“Mike,” though. Despite a genius I.Q. and an education to match–and healthy retirement income–Mike has inexplicably consigned his mind to extreme politics. He rejects credible newspapers, sneers at information that contradict his beliefs, and gets his “news” from dubious sources and conspiratorial, racist websites. I’m sure he voted for Trump.

No newspaper is at fault for failing to reach Mike. Mike poisoned his own mind. Mike doesn’t want facts. He wants his pathology affirmed by raging voice vote from people similarly afflicted.

As for me, I don’t require my newspapers to lay down planks for my own political firmament, or to raze the opposition. Once I have the facts, I can form my own opinions.
I have complete confidence in the facts newspapers deliver because, thanks to Larry Fink, I have complete confidence in my ability to harvest them.

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