Media

What Is Fact-Checking without Facts?

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
On the New York Times’ disgrace

‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

How quaint seems this trenchant observation by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the greatest progressive thinkers of the 20th century’s latter half. Not because of the patriarchal pronoun presumptions of the aging white cis male; I refer to Senator Moynihan’s very assumption that there are facts. That there is an objective reality on which we can all agree, even if we disagree about what it means. And equally important, that there is a way of getting to facts, a common language of reason that enables us to investigate, communicate, and explicate.

Senator Moynihan would not recognize that paragon of 21st century progressivism, the New York Times.

On Thursday, with its snowflakes in meltdown, the Times issued an apology. What triggered the staff? Was it an earthquake, perhaps? A mass-casualty attack? An assassination? A cinnamon rugelach shortage at Zabar’s? No, this unspeakable atrocity was an op-ed . . . by a conservative Republican senator . . . and a combat veteran from, you guessed it, the South!

Oh, let’s not be too hard on them. It took a full day of mau-mauing before the Times said “Uncle” — or whatever non-binary relation we use to convey surrender these days. The Upper West Side can rest assured there’ll be no more Tom Cotton screeds to churn bile through the avocado toast — they can go back to the thoughtful essayists of Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran. No more unnerving mentions of federal statutes like . . . dare I utter it . . . the Insurrection Act that have been on the books for two centuries. Fear not, the Gray Lady’s opinion pages will now get back to the laws that aren’t on the books — for example, did you know that “without legal protection, a pedophile cannot risk seeking treatment or disclosing his status to anyone for support”? (And hey, hey, hey, what’s with the his?)

The best part of the Times’s apology, the instant classic, was the commitment to “expanding our fact-checking operation.” Plainly, they don’t mean fact-checking the way you antediluvian types think of facts and checking. After all, as our Rich Lowry details, Senator Cotton’s op-ed was exhaustively fact-checked. And, while the prestigious academic institution in question is not anxious to have word of this get around (so let’s keep it between us, shall we?), Tom Cotton graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and was on the editorial board of The Crimson. Cotton doesn’t like to brag, but he can speak fluid Times. There is no possibility that the many communications between the senator’s office and the paper’s opinion editors were garbled.

And, while this may be a real phenomenon in the 21st century, the fact-checking worked, in just the way Moynihan talked about facts: stuff that is true, regardless of whether we like it. You are entitled to your own opinion, of course. You may believe a proposal to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to help police restore order in major American cities is a Know-Nothing stratagem that smacks of racism and fascism. Or you may not be unhinged but believe, nevertheless, that it is a bad idea. That, however, does not falsify the assertions of fact on which Cotton relied.

The Insurrection Act has the force of law. It authorizes the president to use the armed forces of the United States — the National Guard as well as the other armed services, as needed — to suppress insurrections and wide-scale societal violence. Some provisions, consistent with Article IV of the Constitution, condition the president’s authority to call the military into service for these purposes on the request of the state government. Yet not all do. If the commander-in-chief assesses that a threat is sufficiently dire, unilateral action is authorized. Thus, the law provides:

Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.

Another section, moreover, empowers presidents to use the armed forces based on their own judgment that doing so is “necessary to suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy” that threatens to deprive Americans of their rights.

The contentions that invocation of the Insurrection Act would be unconstitutional, unlawful, or unprecedented are legally and historically ignorant. And how ironic is the notion that a president’s doing so over the objection of state governments would be racist? Historically, the president’s power has been deployed against the forces of racism that state governments either could not suppress or actually supported — in response to the Ku Klux Klan after passage of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, and to enforce desegregation and civil rights in the years following the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. And the law has been invoked on other occasions to help police restore order after extensive rioting has broken out, such as in Detroit in the late 1960s and Los Angeles in 1992.

Relying on this detailed history and statutory law, Senator Cotton posited that deploying military forces to assist police and protect Americans besieged by rioters and looters does not establish martial law, much less end democracy. That is true, as is his related assertion that such deployments do not violate the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 — a law that generally bars the military from civilian law-enforcement functions, but that expressly prescribes exceptions, which include the Insurrection Act.

Can we be honest? I don’t know, since honesty implies, along with good faith, a common ground for assimilating basic reality. Assuming we can be honest, we know, as the Times knew thanks to meticulous scrutiny, that Cotton was right . . . about his underlying facts.

That doesn’t make the opinion he formulates from them right. He could be well informed yet wrong. It may be, as many forcefully argue, that state-government approval as a prerequisite to federal intrusions to quell domestic violence should be required, based on both the express terms of the Constitution’s Article IV and the Framers’ preference for state sovereignty over intrastate affairs. It could be that, as others insist, the kind of upheaval we are currently witnessing traces to deep-seated societal problems that can be effectively addressed only by a cooperative federal-state response. It may be, as Trump critics contend, that unilateral federal action, coupled with gratuitously provocative presidential rhetoric, is more apt to exacerbate than ameliorate the crisis. Or it could be, as some Trump supporters counter, that having been governed by progressive Democrats for decades, big cities are seething because of toxicities of their own making, and that there can be no lasting solutions until they shoulder the consequences and take responsibility for fixing them.

There are a plethora of other possibilities, no doubt. That’s how it is with opinion, and with the op-ed pages of a vaunted “Newspaper of Record.” But not with fact.

Where it was reporting fact, Tom Cotton’s op-ed was accurate. Cotton is a smart guy. The Times opinion editors are smart people. The piece was published only because they mutually agreed on the rudimentary facts. That is how it becomes possible for people, even people who disagree intensely, to have a dialogue and maybe make progress.

So what does the Times now mean about “expanding our fact-checking operation”? It can only mean that this “operation” will censor — or, better, further censor, to the point of exclusion — opinions that depart from modern progressive dogma. And that dogma comes with its own “facts.” Having one’s own facts is an absurd notion, but it is the cast of mind reflected by the 21st-century progressive’s easy allusions to “my truth,” as if there were more than one.

That is what should most distress us about the otherwise low comedy of the Times, once a great institution of this country, throwing itself on the pyre.

Real progress is only possible, and real cohesion is only stable, if a society can agree that there are objective facts, and that they can be gotten at through reason and common sense. Only with that in place is it possible for us to work out our differences, or at least agree to disagree in peace. You don’t get to have your own facts. We used to know that.

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