Comments and Commentaries: The blogs in this series were written over a period of three years. Many of my ideas shifted significantly during this period but instead of revising everything and forcing it into a common mold, I decided to let matters stand as first conceptualized. All comments are loosely connected by my interest in the idea of a “fact” or “what is a fact,” seen from a historical perspective.
It often pays to look at what a dictionary says about a word, especially one as widely used as *fact*. In my experience a dictionary may carry conflicting meanings, and this – as I discovered – applies with special force to *fact*. The reason is clear: *fact* is a word used on a daily basis to underwrite and support opinions strongly held and presumably as props for opinions which cannot easily be justified by the “common man.” (The *common man* here refers to everyone in their relaxed, uncritical mood.) The reputable, much-used Merriman-Webster Dictionary (on-line edition) has the following entry for *fact*:
Fact: noun. A thing that is indisputably the case. Information used as evidence or as part of a report of news article. Synonyms: reality – deed – actuality – truth – case – circumstance.
The suggestion that fact is a part of a report in a news article came as a total surprise to me. Which part? In a news article, perhaps, as published in a typical daily newspaper? My philosophical head also spun on seeing the synonyms listed, for synonyms cannot automatically be substituted for one other, to serve as alternatives, without changing at least somewhat the meaning of the expression in which they are used. If this were the case, it would defeat the purpose of what most people regard as the primary role of a dictionary: to give a clear explication of a word: no ambiguities, please! What is indisputable about the Merriman-Webster entry is that the word *fact* serves as a noun – but this is not a part of its meaning, and only identifies its grammatical status.
Many, but not all, news articles (whatever these are) report matters that are poorly substantiated and plainly not even truthful. Such articles often omit critical information and may include easily-correctable errors, such as an incorrect date. Since newspaper and magazine publishers are for-profit organizations and are driven by the need to provide an service to an information hungry general public, their dominant goal is profit, not a service to others.
Furthermore the quality of reports may vary greatly over time, as the history of the venerable London Times has demonstrated. Could the Times possibly become part of the yellow press and cease to cater to supposedly well-educated men of industry and senior civil servants in the UK, the empire builders and financiers of yester-year? Not likely. Yet it could certainly change the quality of its reports in order to fit the temper of the times. Indeed it has done so quite deliberately.
And what about those many matters which were once widely and commonly regarded to be well-substantiated, solid facts, but which lost their certainty, and thus their sheen? Facts, as we have learned, can be children of fashion, and fashions change at an alarming rate. Surely readers should be told how and when such changes are made (and they never are!). I would love to see a subheading of a New York Times article say, “Read with a pinch of salt,” or “This item may be too vinegary for some.”
Truth to tell, many journalists invent and fabricate facts – or at least put their own spin on factual raw materials – and the conclusions to be drawn from such imaginary facts. Are there perhaps advanced courses in journalism at universities and business schools which teach people how to turn facts into plausible fictions, and vice versa? Such course may attract large enrolments.
Of course, I am not suggesting that all is rotten in Fleet Street or similar pockets of the news industry. To my delight, I discovered some time ago that in several countries the quality of reporting and the standard of commentaries about newsworthy events continues to be very high. Standards of excellence are also maintained in review articles of books, the theatre, films, art exhibitions, concerts and most certainly in political commentaries, regardless of which side of the spectrum editorial sympathies lie.
Would it be invidious to single out places or specific papers? Most of us confine our news-reading to local papers – many now free and doubly dependent on advertising revenue. These litter public transport, lie around on streets and coffee houses. They are understandably sparse in writings for intelligent people. But cities like in Zurich, Basel, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, or Stockholm, to name a few in Europe, continue to value breadth of coverage and quality of writing. Not so throughout the USA, which continues to be poorly served by its daily newspapers but are better served by weeklies and monthly magazines. Different countries, different cultures; different attitudes of what is news, to what the public is expected to know, and what are fair commentaries about events.
Ah well – why complain when more and more of us can access internet services and spend free moments watching awesome “telly” and the products of Hollywood and Bollywood.
In summary: facts are not news-items, but are claims that a statement could be true. It depends on how stringent are the criteria for “referential truth”. This is a topic which will be discussed in more details elsewhere, in other blogs of this series.