Don’t let the facts get in the way of (your) truth

A old friend of mine—a friend from way way back, I mean; I’m actually older—recently published a nice piece in which he argues for all of us to expand the sources of news and information we regularly sample and to rediscover the ability and the inclination to think critically.  You can read it here, and when you get past the cows and the sharks (you’ll see) he makes a good point about how in today’s world our experience and exposure tend to drive most people into a set of beliefs that become impermeable to facts and reason.  Unfortunately.

Today I was looking through articles I’d saved to write about some day, and found one that relates to Joe’s post: from almost three years ago, Rex Huppke’s Chicago Tribune obituary for Facts.

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.


“It’s very depressing,” said Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact.” “I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We’ll never agree on anything.”


Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.

But those halcyon days would not last.

People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.


Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.


“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” [Poovey] said. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”

Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion…

…and a not-so-distant cousin, Bald-Faced Lie, all of whom now appear regularly in the political “reality show” that passes for journalism on the 24-hour news networks.

(Relive the debut of “truthiness” right here.)

Dear Jon Stewart,

Thank you…you and the little army of writers and television gypsies that came together for good, at a time when your country, and I, needed you.  When we were lost, trying to rescue truth from the clutches of the radical political conservatives, and the evangelical Christian extremists, and the political organizations they controlled, you went to the front of the column and screamed, “Seriously?”

Journalism was little help in those dark times.  The major outlets were swampedjon_stewart3 by calls that blamed the “liberal media” for always taking sides against good honest conservatives, so they fell back to reporting controversial stories as little more than “he said/she said” exchanges and refused to identify blatant falsity as such.  They were outmaneuvered by the opposition; they were (and are) cowards, willing victims to what David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times beautifully referred to as “the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalypse: superficiality, sensationalism, preoccupation with celebrity, and obsession with the bottom line.”  So it was left to comedy, satire, to ride to our rescue.

The objection to Puritans is not that they try to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think. – H. L. Mencken

Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so. – Robert A. Heinlein

It didn’t help that the barbarians at the gate, intent on replacing the tolerant democratic civil society we were aspiring to with a theocracy of their own religious beliefs, decided to unlevel the playing field and refuse to acknowledge any truths that didn’t support their worldview.  The “reality-based community” stood dumbfounded, scrambling for the proper reply to “No, the sky is not blue, and you can’t prove that it is.”  But you found a way.

You like to say that you were just a comedian; true enough, but on The Daily Show you were more than just jokes.  You aimed a most potent weapon—sunshine; the light of day; their own words; common sense—at people who were full of shit and assured us all that the smell was coming from somewhere else.  They deserved what they got from you, and we got to laugh.  And in the process—in pointing out that the emperor indeed did not have on any clothes, that what politicians said quite often was at odds with demonstrable truth, that the 24-hour news channels weren’t worth the paper they were printed on—you reassured a lot of us that there was still hope.  For that, thank you.

Fact is, you did a great job of it just this week and I grabbed the link.  So for old time’s sake, just once more, let me suggest—click the pic, ya maroons.


Falkenberg snaps the shutout and changes the law

The Houston Chronicle is heckled within these walls as “Houston’s Leading Information Source” for two sarcastic reasons: that’s what it proclaimed itself to be for many years in a local advertising—er, excuse me, branding—campaign , and since the other, better local major daily was bought and smothered—er, excuse me, closed and had its assets acquired—by the Chronicle 20 years ago it’s only had local television and radio stations to compete against, and the less said about their journalism the better.  Yet today I come not to bury the Chron but to praise it, for the first Pulitzer Prize in its 114-year history.

The winner of the 2015 Pulitzer for Commentary is Chronicle Metro columnist Lisa Falkenberg, “for Falkenbergvividly-written, groundbreaking columns about grand jury abuses that led to a wrongful conviction and other egregious problems in the legal and immigration systems.”    In its story on her award today the paper puts Falkenberg’s series in perspective:

Falkenberg was awarded the prize for a series of columns she wrote about Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was condemned for the killing of a Houston police officer, a crime he very likely did not commit.

From documents leaked to her by sources, or obtained through court records and Freedom of Information Act requests, Falkenberg revealed how a witness, Brown’s former girlfriend, who could have provided him with an alibi, was threatened and intimidated by a grand jury into lying on the stand. She provided the key testimony that put Brown on death row.

She pulled back the curtain on the secretive Texas grand jury system, allowing a glimpse into the workings of the panel that indicted Brown. That panel, Falkenberg revealed, was headed by a Houston police officer.

And she documented how phone records placing Brown at his girlfriend’s apartment at the time of the crime which were in the hands of prosecutors were never handed over to his attorneys as required by law.

Ten years after being sentenced to death, Brown was granted a new trial. And as Falkenberg wrote just last Sunday, he is still waiting.

More to the point—albeit one the paper chose not to mention in its own story—Falkenberg’s series on Brown is credited with the push in the current state legislative session to do away with the “pick a pal” grand jury selection system, which she argues is at the heart of the problem that has Browne in jail for a crime he probably did not commit.  Way to go, Leading Information Source.

Congratulations, Lisa.


Today Stephen Colbert retires “Stephen Colbert.” Since October 2005 Colbert the comedian and satirist has launched “Colbert” the character on a mission to entertain us by shining a light on the hypocrisy and evil intentions of people who profit from pandering to a fear and ignorance in American society that refuses to wilt in the face of truth. In fact, he told us as much on the very first episode (click the pic):

ColbertTruthinessEver thought about what it must take for Colbert to stay in character, and to do it for so many years? This morning I ran across a nice little article that links to a Slate podcast in which Colbert explains—very interesting.

The odd obsession of CBS Sports

There is so much going on right now; what should I write about:

Yeah, that’s it: what is it with CBS Sports and the wives and children of PGA golfers?  It’s seemed to me for some time that Jim Nantz and the CBS golf broadcast are inordinately interested in naming, and showing, the wives/girlfriends/children of PGA pros when they win a tournament.  Frighteningly so.  Obsessed, even.

Not that I paid as much attention to golf on television then as I do now, but I don’t remember seeing Nicklaus’ and Palmer’s wives and kids showing up on the 18th green to hug daddy after a win.  Maybe it started with Tiger.  Tiger was such a phenomenon: so young, and so good, a new kind of golfer.  Way back when, the revered amateur golfer Bobby Jones* offered quite a compliment when he said young Jack Nicklaus played a game with which he was not familiar, and Nicklaus famously said the same about Tiger.  And when young Tiger would win, he’d walk off the green and hug his mom and dad.  It was kind of heartwarming, yes…but the TV couldn’t stop there.  Next it was Tiger hugging his bikini model-girlfriend du jour; then it was his fiancée, then his wife, but still his mom and dad.  And then after his dad died, just his wife.

(By the way, the CBS guys only ever call him “Tiger,” no need for last names…it shows they’re tight, I guess. Even if some bluenoses like me think it’s inappropriate for people covering a news event—even a sporting news event—to be quite so familiar with the people they’re covering—or even worse, to appear to be fawning over the people they’re covering—for fear that the presumption of objectivity and fairness will disappear.  Others say it’s better to be honest and not feign objectivity or pretend they don’t have favorites, and that may be the most charitable explanation I can offer for the overly familiar references from CBS, and the rest of the golfing press and TV, too, to be fair.)

Or maybe it was Phil (again, no need for a last name here) because he was hugging and kissing his pretty blonde wife, and later his pretty blonde kids which called to mind the legacy of the 1999 U.S. Open when he lost to Payne Stewart just before his first child was born.  And then even more so when Amy (yes, even some of the wives are first-name only) was being treated for cancer and she showed up to congratulate him at the 18th after a win, and that was sweet, too.

Somewhere along the way, the CBS golf producers got it stuck in their heads that the money shot from any tournament coverage was the winner being greeted by children and wives after sinking the final putt.  Eventually I realized it was happening at every tournament, every week, seemingly without exception.  Yes, some golfers have their wives/girlfriends/families with them on the road all the time; some of them are lucky enough to win a tournament being played near where their families live; but for the wives and kids to be there ever single week?  Too much.

Yesterday at The Barclay’s, the first playoff event for this year’s FedEx Cup, and Hunter Mahan is winning…yep, Cinderella story, comin’ outta nowhere…and Jim Nantz slides into that here-comes-the-fairy-tale-ending tone of his as he almost giddily whispers to a national TV audience that “hey, Hunter’s wife and daughter are HERE—I mean, they ACTUALLY FLEW HERE FROM ANOTHER STATE last night or this morning when it looked like he might win.  Have you ever seen such a thing in your whole life ever?!”  He even managed to slip in that she “NetJet-ted in.”  Imagine, if you can, the frontier grit it took for that woman to actually go to a local airfield and climb aboard a private luxury jet operated by one of her wealthy husband’s sponsors and ride in it all the way from Dallas to Teterboro?  (Yep, Nantz even told me which New York area airport she utilized!)

Mahan made his last putt, congratulated the others in his group, turned to walk off and you could see a little smile of surprise and recognition when he saw his wife and daughter on the other side of the green.  He was also trying to be a considerate competitor and get off the green as quickly as possible because there were still golfers on the course behind him waiting to finish the hole, but the cameras were in his way, hawking around waiting to capture the de rigeur heartwarming image of the man picking up his toddler and kissing his wife.  The camera even followed behind the little family as Mahan walked to the official’s tent to sign his scorecard, and we got to overhear as Mrs. asks “Weren’t you surprised to see us?”  A few minutes later the last group on the course finishes up and Mahan’s win is official; so, cue the CBS reporter for the perfunctory post-tournament “interview,” and damned if Peter Kostis didn’t make it part of the premise of his first question!

Today on my way to lunch I heard on CBS radio that Mahan won the Barclay’s AND OMIGOD HIS WIFE AND LITTLE DAUGHTER WERE THERE TO GREET HIM WHEN HE CAME OFF THE 18TH GREEN—WOWSERS!  This afternoon I was checking facts for this post, and this was the prominent picture on the front page of CBS Sports’ golf section:


Pul-leeze, give it a rest.  You’re trying way too hard to prove…what is it that you’re trying to prove again, exactly?  Look, the journalism bar is much lower for sports than for news, but there still is a bar, or there should be.  We tune in to watch a golf tournament, not a reality show/soap opera about the golfer and his family.  Nobody’s buying what you’re selling here…not even you, I bet.

(*updated: quote originally, and inaccurately, attributed to Ben Hogan — PR)