Not those facts. The other facts, the important ones.
Which is how I began a piece I’m working on, the subtitle of which is “how I learned to read newspapers.” Because those are the facts I’m talking about.
The problem–how to distinguish actual facts from opinion/slant/hyperbole–does shove its face at us almost daily, as anyone who gets news from, well, anywhere knows. And the problem explodes: whichever medium tells the story first, radio and, to an extent, TV news skim a couple of words right off the top of the story and deliver only the juicy oooh stuff. And it is nothing but the juicy oooh stuff, larded heavily with provocative, volatile words like “scandal,” that reaches my half-asleep ears when I turn on news radio in the a.m.
Day after day the media continue to repeat the same stuff over and over, even after its been critiqued and found substantially wanting, if not dead wrong.
The latest brouhaha involves the way the New York Times has informed (or misinformed, as it happens) its reading public about Hillary Clinton’s emails. The phrase “criminal investigation” is now cropping up all the time, even after the Times itself printed a correction.
Other media sources have investigated and have pretty well debunked the story, at least the parts that cast aspersions on Hillary Clinton. What remains is a tangle of misleading reports about how and when the State Department classified information.
But, as you know, once a story is out there, whether it is factual or false no longer matters. The most exciting, i.e., nastiest, most politicized interpretation will be repeated over and over and over.
Since I have a three-lesson system for personal investigation of news, I wasn’t fooled. There were too many questions I had. One big one: I never like anonymous sources, so who exactly–on what side of the aisle?–were these unnamed people who said an investigation was going to take place? If a newspaper can’t name its sources, it shouldn’t be publishing the piece, or should be injecting a heap of dubiousness into the story.
But when I have exhausted all my own considerable resources in qualifying an article by eliminating colorful and prejudicial adjectives and adverbs–carving it down to the bare facts–I can always check MediaMatters. I know this invaluable a-political public service will give me a thorough analysis of any news story, one that separates facts from opinion, prejudice and, of course, politics.
I could plug this post into The Global War Against Women category, given the punishing gauntlet Hillary Clinton has been and will be driven through as she campaigns. But there’s too much non-gender-specific Clinton hatred in all this, so let’s just call this what I called it: How to get the facts of life.
UPDATE and supplement 7/29/2015. After I picked up the above MediaMatters analysis, I read this excellent article by Joe Conason, in the National Memo. It covers the same critical territory but approaches it via a lengthy post written by Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public editor, i.e., ombudsman:
Conason says that Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, lets the the paper’s editors and reporters off a bit too easily.