Do facts have a future? The New York Times focused its business section on the question Monday, with columnist Jim Rutenberg describing “the realm of the true and how all sides would define it” as the battleground in the “hyperpartisan debate to come under a new president.” Rutenberg wondered if the news media is up to the challenge of “maintaining a fact-based national debate.”
Another article in Monday’s Times describes the challenge facing Snopes, the fact-checking and myth-debunking website now assailed by some conservatives as untrustworthy. Brooke Binkowski, Snopes’s managing editor, marveled that “rationality seems to have fallen out of vogue.”
Journalists traffic in facts, and for that reason take them more seriously than most. The rest of the world is a lot more focused on reality—and beyond that, perhaps, a shadowy something called truth. Reality is something we just know—it isn’t something facts reveal.
Facts, some say, just get in the way of the big picture. For instance, Albert Camus said that “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” In other words, facts are not only not the truth, they’re not even the gateway to the truth! This is a common thought.
“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth,” wrote British novelist Doris Lessing.
“I am arguing . . . ” explained essayist Deborah Kest, “that our access to reality is based on fiction rather than fact, that we understand something only insofar as we tell ourselves a story about it. By this I mean that fiction is inherently more ‘true’ than fact . . . “
Kest describes herself as a “neopagan,” but in this instance she’s running in fast company. For instance:
“It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”—Ken Kesey.
“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”—Khaled Hosseini.
“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”—Tim O’Brien.
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”—Jessamyn West.
You can see how complicated this is. Reality obscures the truth. Even truth obscures the truth! But lies and fiction get us there. No wonder everyone but us journalists thinks facts expendable. No wonder Trump voters didn’t lie awake at night pondering their contradictions.
Every conversation I’ve had with a Trump supporter included them telling me a story about Hillary Clinton that concluded with the assessment that she belonged behind bars (or at least in some place where she could do no more harm). What about Trump?! I’d reply. But they had no story to tell about Trump. And as there was for them no Trump narrative in which my Trump facts could be embedded, those facts weren’t worth thinking about. My imagination easily conjured up a narrative in which the election of Trump led to the end of the world, but their imaginations were otherwise engaged. No one felt a need to make a case that my facts were wrong; my facts were paltry things next to their reality—that Hillary Clinton belongs in chains on Devil’s Island.
In the latest issue of the Atlantic, James Fallows writes dolefully that Americans just made a choice of president that was “largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality.” He wonders if “old-line media with their quaint regard for truth” will be up to the challenge of keeping that from happening twice and he thinks the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
I suppose Deborah Kest, not to mention Camus, would say the good guys need better storytellers more than they need more and better journalists. But most of us journalists understand our limitations: facts are what we’re good for. I suggest we keep quarrying them, and try not to worry as much as Fallows does that the future of everything is on our shoulders. Our facts don’t necessarily lead to anyone’s truth, no matter how many of them we dish up. But for our own peace of mind we need to keep humping.