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American Journalism Review
Reflections on the Death of Facts...  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2012

Reflections on the Death of Facts...   

...inspired by a brilliant, must-read “obituary” in the Chicago Tribune. Fri., April 20, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


If you do nothing else today, make sure you read Rex W. Huppke's brilliant obituary of Facts. If you've already read it, read it again.

And weep.

Sure, the Chicago Tribune piece is funny as hell. But the reality it reflects about the state of political debate in this country is nothing short of tragic.

Our society is so polarized that people continue to believe what they want to believe, no matter how much it flies in the face of the truth.

The problem is hardly a new one. In a piece in AJR's October/November 2003 issue called "Baghdad Urban Legends," Lori Robertson reported on the high percentage of people who continued to believe that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks and weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. This despite the fact that there wasn't a shred of evidence to suggest that either proposition was true.

Or take the enduring myth that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. No matter how much corroboration is produced, the True Believers hang on to this canard.

I'm a huge fan of the fact-checking movement that has sprouted in journalism in recent years. But one of the truly discouraging facts is that no matter how thorough the debunking, many partisans continue to hold tightly onto myths that fit their preconceptions.

As the great Chico Marx once asked, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

And no matter how much light is shed on this dreary phenomenon, it seems to get worse and worse.

Huppke was driven to put together his obit by the preposterous assertion by a Florida congressman that the U.S. House of Representatives is honeycombed with commies.

Huppke wrote, "To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. 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."

In the current climate, there's seemingly no penalty for playing fast and loose with the truth.

Remember that Mitt Romney ad last year that quoted Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." What Obama actually said was, "Senator [John] McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.' "

The distortion was widely pointed out. But Romney paid no price for the cynical ploy. It was barely a media blip.

The overarching problem in a world in which opinion trumps facts is that consensus becomes impossible. If you can't agree on what the reality is, you sure can't agree on a solution.

Huppke points out that there are plenty of contenders around to fill the vacuum created by the death of Facts.

"Facts," he wrote, "is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion."

Excellent! I feel better already.

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