Should we just say so long to labels like “The Newspaper of Record”? Do elite media sources such as the New York Times (“We Seek the Truth”) and the Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”) now understand themselves to be nothing more than purveyors of the best opinions? And does it really matter? Why or why not?
Not sure where I am going? Maybe first chew on this: Do better and worse opinions exist, and if so, what makes this the case?
These questions are prompted by a very thoughtful new book by Bethany Kilcrease, Falsehood and Fallacy: How to Think, Read, and Write in the Twenty-First Century, where I was challenged by something she said about facts versus opinions. She notes that a factual statement can be proven or disproven with objective evidence (so not all “factual statements” are true, or even capable of being proven true or false), but that facts are factual statements that are proven and therefore true.
On the other hand, opinions not only are not able to be objectively proven or disproven, but are “subjective, value-based beliefs” and therefore are “subjective conjectures by definition.” Opinions, in fact, are based on beliefs arrived at without objective or factual evidence, and are “speculations in the absence of knowledge.” This does not mean that opinions cannot be true, it just means that they remain opinions.
Is this correct? If one does an online search for the word opinion, one will come across definitions such as “a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge” or “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty” (italics mine). So, interestingly, is Kilcrease’s definition of opinion actually an opinion? I am quite certain it is!
From my own perspective, it seems that opinions—perhaps somewhat like interpretations—can be based on more or less knowledge as the case may be. This means that we are not always able to clearly distinguish statements of fact from statements of opinion. While we can often arrive at an undisputed statement of facts, we cannot always determine if a statement “is capable of being proven true based on objective evidence.”
Now let’s take Kilcrease’s opinion about opinions and stack it up against a recent news story about the “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani at Business Insider, “Dominion Says It Won’t Settle With Giuliani, Lindell, or Powell Over Conspiracy Theories”:
. . . lawyers representing Powell and Giuliani reiterated their positions that their claims about Dominion’s role in the election didn’t meet the legal standard for defamation.
‘Powell and Giuliani are open to settlement discussions once discovery is complete and Dominion realizes that its claims are without merit and that it has no damages legally attributable to Powell and Giuliani,’ the filing said. ‘Powell and Giuliani have nothing to show remorse for and dispute that they have lied about anything.’
To say the least, there are different opinions here! And this has been the case since the beginning of these matters in the court of public opinion, high and low. For example, while the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake gave every impression that Sidney Powell’s court filings indicate that she never believed her claims of voter fraud, Powell at the time (April 2021) vigorously stated that “she continue[d] to stand by [her original opinions] today.”
What I find most interesting is that the heart of the issue—at least from Powell’s legal perspective—really does appear to be over whether someone is stating something as a definitive fact or whether they are stating something as a well-informed opinion that they are very confident about. When Powell stated in her filing that “no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact,” (see the full filing here), one can easily see how many believed she was backtracking—particularly with headlines like Blake’s: “Sidney Powell’s Tucker Carlson-esque defense: ‘Reasonable people’ wouldn’t take her wild voter-fraud claims as fact.” Nevertheless, she insisted otherwise, stating that the normal legal process and normal legal definitions were being misrepresented and that she was being smeared.
Unless I am mistaken, what Powell was saying there is that she indeed believed that what she thought was true and that she was going to prove it in a court of law. Her words were not in themselves proof but instead were her strongly-held opinion that she intended to demonstrate. Again, at issue is her words and words from witnesses who demanded not simply to be believed, but to have their statements bolstered by the legal discovery process and rigorous cross-examination in order to establish their validity as fact beyond a reasonable doubt. That she would attempt to do this should perhaps not be surprising, given that Powell has been the “lead attorney in over 500 federal appeals, 350 of these as assistant U.S. attorney.”
And here, something else Kilcrease says is very helpful. While she maintains that “neutrality” is not possible, “objectivity”—which she defines as being open to independent verification using testable “public criteria”— is.
Indeed, isn’t that what the court system is for?
At the same time, we also need to realize that not all opinions—even the best opinions which go hand in hand with truth—can be proven in a court of law (assuming one is actually given a day in court to make the case). And even if a case might win the day in court, there may be, of course, “dissenting opinions”! And these dissenting opinions should not be taken lightly, but are often believed to have some real “substance” to them.
When it comes to distinguishing truth from falsehood, Kilcrease wisely argues that “the skills historians use to interrogate arguments and sources” are the skills needed by everyone. Perhaps I am missing something, but does all of this legal stuff appear to have wider applicability? Add “law” to “history” as another discipline that might help us in our efforts to get to the bottom of the truth.
Let’s consider all of this in relation to the Project Veritas lawsuit vs. the New York Times where the Times originally tried to argue, essentially, that all of their articles were op-eds?
So, again, do elite publications like the “Newspaper of Record” now think they just have the best opinions? Is the establishment, having squandered what remained of its good name, now simply content to “establish” its opinion? This appears to be the case, and so I submit that the New York Times agrees with me then, one way or the other: not only are there “better” opinions, but also, it seems, the search and true establishment of facts be damned.
Why not, instead, be like a crossword puzzle without the vertical or horizontal elements, that is, with neither correspondence nor coherence!