The Blurring of Fact and Opinion, 2016-Style (Part 1 of 5)

The expression “You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts” came to us from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who during his distinguished career was a scholar, an advisor to presidents, a diplomat, and a United States senator. For the most part, people generally seem to agree with this assertion, with the implicit understanding that good people may differ when it comes to matters of opinion.

Was it fact or fiction?  Last year, that seemed to matter less than ever.

Was it fact or fiction? Last year that seemed to matter less than ever.

A number of news organizations devote considerable resources to identifying facts and disproving erroneous assertions and opinions presented as facts in the public arena. The Washington Post, for example, has “Fact Checker,” the Annenberg Public Policy Center has, and the Tampa Bay Times operates “Politifact.” In addition, many newspapers run some sort of fact-check features during political campaigns in which they attempt to identify for their readers the facts and the falsehoods they are hearing from candidates for public office.

In 2016 we learned that for a lot of people, the facts just don’t matter. They’re not interested in facts, not interested that the candidate who insisted that two plus three equals seven was incorrect, not interested in believing anything that differs from what they want to believe, as opposed to the truth.

Never did facts and the truth matter as little as they did during the presidential campaign of 2016.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, a lot of people and pundits are saying this outcome represented a failure by the media. The Curmudgeon does not agree. If anything, the media stepped outside of its usual role of “just the facts” to make sure readers and viewers understood when the presidential candidates were bending the facts or outright lying. That’s why Donald Trump kept referring to the media as corrupt and as liars: because reporters were detailing his own exaggerations and lies and he considers such truth-telling to be a form of corruption.

And his supporters ate it up. They weren’t interested in learning that the things they were being told weren’t true; they wanted those things to be true, so they joined Trump in excoriating those who dared tell them otherwise. No, the media didn’t fail in this campaign because it failed to point out lies and other tall tales; to the contrary, it was the voters who failed because so many of them decided they were willing to be deceived, willing to be lied to – even happy to be deceived and happy to be lied to – by someone, by anyone, who was willing to tell them what they wanted to hear.

The Curmudgeon also doesn’t buy the argument that the media gave Trump too much free publicity. First of all, all credible candidates for president get a lot of free “publicity.” It’s called news coverage, and that’s what news organizations exist to provide. Second, and more important, the attention Trump received was based on his willingness – a craven willingness, at least in The Curmudgeon’s view, but a willingness nonetheless – to say whatever he needed to say to get that attention. He had a short-cut to that attention, and to credibility, because he’s so well-known and so many people have shown so much interest in what he has had to say over the years, regrettable though that may seem. He was not a Jill Stein or a Gary Johnson. When a candidate for president who has earned public attention says he wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the U.S., that’s news and the media needs to report it. When he says he wants to keep Muslims out of the U.S., that’s news and the media needs to report it. And when he says he wants to jail his opponent, repeal a law that enabled 30 million Americans to get health insurance, appoint certain kinds of people to the Supreme Court, bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S., rescind trade deals and peace treaties, or any of scores of other things, those statements are news and need to be reported. On the presidential campaign trail the press has only limited latitude to decide what news it reports; if a candidate for president says something it’s automatically news and needs to be reported.

How much more responsible was his campaign than Trump's?

How much more responsible was his campaign than Trump’s?

What would some people have the media do – ignore such statements? Ignore the candidate who makes such statements? Would opponents of Trump on the left have felt the same way if the media had decided to ignore things Bernie Sanders talked about on the campaign trail? (And, for that matter, was Sanders’ campaign any less sensationalistic than Trump’s?) No, the press needs to report the statements – and then point out any factual errors that underlie such statements. And that’s exactly what the media did – and did in a way, with an aggressiveness and comprehensiveness, that it never has in the past.

So who failed? Without question, the pollsters – failed to an enormous, stupendous, unprecedented degree. Any candidate, any news organization, that paid a polling company and was told that Clinton had this race in the bag ought to demand a refund. The pollsters proved completely, utterly, hopelessly incompetent in 2016. That, more than anywhere else, is where failure abounded.

In 2016, political pollsters showed about the same level of skill and accuracy forecasters.

In 2016, political pollsters showed about the same level of skill and accuracy as…weather forecasters.

And that, too, was a strange, inexplicable failure to distinguish fact from opinion. As The Curmudgeon understands it, more than a few pollsters gathered data that suggested that the presidential race was closer than anticipated and that Trump was doing very well, but they interpreted that data incorrectly. Why? Why ignore the facts and fall back on their own instincts or suspicions instead? Did they think they knew better than the numbers? Or did they, like the voters for whom they ultimately showed such disrespect, choose to rely on their opinions rather than the facts they gathered? The Curmudgeon suspects it will be a few more years before we learn the whole story behind the colossal failure of the polling industry – and even a longer time before we trust that industry again.

This week The Curmudgeon will offer a few more examples of how the facts no longer seem to matter in public discourse ­– and why that is so dangerous. He hopes you’ll stick around.







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