Dan Hall: Do facts even matter anymore?
Last week, working as a substitute teacher in a high school, I got a peak at research papers the kids were working on. Many had not the slightest appreciation of the difference between informed opinion and personal prejudice. That is no surprise, though, because so many adults have lost sight of that distinction, too.
They were assigned to research a controversial subject, then write their opinions based on what they learned. Global warming seemed to be the most popular, and most who were writing on that had started their essays in a surprising (and magically, almost identical) fashion: Some people believe global warming is real and some don't, they said, but most scientists who have studied global warming say human activity is not the cause.
They had gotten that notion from a Web site, but they had no idea where the Web site itself had gotten it. It is false. Both the United Nations and our own National Academy of Sciences have examined and indexed just about all the research that's been done anywhere in the world. The overwhelming consensus of climate scientists is exactly the opposite: Global warming is caused, to large extent, by burning fossil fuels.
The kids were simply wrong. It is often a great thing to challenge popular wisdom, I told them, but you have to get your facts straight. So a better way would be to write something like this: "Most scientists think global warming is real. However, a minority do not agree. There have been many times throughout history when a minority has turned out to be right, and I believe this is one of those times." From there, they could go on to explain why.
The kids, however, didn't get it. Some were angry. "But that's my opinion," they kept telling me. They were sure I was just trying to make them think what I think, and they probably told their teacher the next day what a terrible substitute I was.
I would have forgotten the incident – they were, after all, just ninth-graders. The next day, however, I happened to read an essay titled, "The Flickering Light of the News," by conservative columnist Tony Blankley. His essay was about the war and the coming elections, not global warming, but his point was the same as mine: For too many people, including too many working on political campaigns or in the media, facts don't matter.
Blankley’s starting point was the recent fighting in Basra between Iraqi security forces and the militia supporting Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. It is apparent that something very important happened, but it is not clear exactly what, he said. Few Americans know how the Iraqi army performed, what deals were made in the end, or even for sure who was fighting whom. That is because very few independent news reporters were there.
"Despite the absence of any objective knowledge about what had happened," Blankley wrote, "pro- and anti-war news organizations, talk radio shows, columnists, pundits and bloggers leaped into the void – invincibly ignorant of what had happened – and immediately began making powerful arguments in support of their pre-existing positions."
To his great credit, Blankley did not seize the opportunity for a pro- or anti-war polemic of his own. "Millions of American voters," he concluded, "got misinformed on perhaps the central issue of the election … whether misinformed for or against the war, we don't know yet."
Actual news reporting costs money, and newspapers, magazines and television networks have been cutting back for a long while now.
Newspapers ranging in size and prestige from The New York Times on down to the smallest in the country have been diverting resources away from reporting the traditional "who, what, when, why and how." The buzzwords now are, "It's all about you."
The Rochester, N.Y., area's Democratic and Chronicle is a leading example of what is happening all over the country. It has cut way back on straight news and on investigative reporting, while pouring enormous resources into a potpourri of Web sites that resemble Facebook – sites that let parents publish pictures of their kids playing Little League baseball, for example, or that let college students rant about crowded hallways.
Perhaps the media have no choice. They have to make money, and that is where the money is. Yet "It's all about you" is an empty slogan. The most important news is usually not about you – though it is about events around the globe that will, indeed, change your lives.
We have to restore some emphasis on hard-digging reporting about the important events in our community and the world. It is no surprise that so many of the ninth-graders I met last week thought facts don't matter, as long as they had their own opinions.
Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor of Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail email@example.com.