review: Truth in Our Times

Review: Truth in Our Times

  It must be must be quite interesting to be the New York Times’ lawyer in this age of constant whining about “fake news” and daily threats of litigation whenever some inconvenient truth is published . And which litigious threats are routinely whacked down by various courts around the country. “Truth in Our Times” was written by David E. McCraw, Deputy General Counsel of the New York Times, a newspaper that has somewhat routinely criticized the current administration of Donald Trump and thus earned itself routine and sundry threats. The first thing I learned reading the book is that Mr. McCraw is indeed a very busy guy as the Times seems to be sued by someone every other day.

The question McCraw posits is, what is the responsibility of news organizations local, national, and international to truthfully keep the public informed? To be sure news organizations are slanted every which way and you can choose for yourself which version(s) you prefer. We must always keep in mind a news outlet regardless of slant should present the truth and responsibly distinguish facts from opinions. Opinion must always be presented as such and clearly labeled. Of course in the world at large it isn’t always.

My own bias: I have been reading the New York Times since I began learning to read. My father bought the Times every Sunday to skim the news and retire with the crossword puzzle which, in his estimation, was the only such puzzle worth his efforts. I managed to stay with the newspaper through my college library, and when I was in the Air Force I read the Sunday edition paid for in advance, which arrived by Greyhound in Salina, Kansas, where I was stationed. Everywhere I have lived, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, to Kansas, California, and New Mexico, I have arranged to get my Sunday Times. So, yes, you could say that I have a bias towards the Times. No matter what you think about the Times or another newspaper, we all have our biases for whatever source of news we favor. That’s a given. I don’t always agree with the opinions expressed in the Times but I trust the reporting. McCraw’s book gives us an important insight into the Times’ commitment to telling the truth especially today in the face of reflexive threats and public name-calling that rarely rises above a grade school playground level. 

Currently the running feud against the Times exercised by the litigious Donald Trump has been keeping the author busy, particularly with respect to the Mueller Report. Regardless of how you are biased towards the Mueller investigation into the shenanigans of the past national election, everyone should be concerned with the revealed facts derived from the discovery process. We are told by aggrieved parties that there are “alternative” facts. There are no such things as “alternative” facts. Facts are findings indisputably the case. An “alternative fact” is not, in fact, a fact but a perverted truism that is useful in distracting attention away from the “actual” fact. Only facts are facts, and that fact is the end of the story. McCraw carefully illustrates the routine diligence and care taken by Times reporters and editors to get the facts straight.

Of course facts can be presented in a biased manner. Lawyers make their careers successfully presenting “facts” in a manner biased towards a favorable outcome for their clients. To them facts become malleable arrangements of words carefully crafted to emphasize or obfuscate truth to suit their purposes. You might say lawyering can be a very creative activity. One would have to be utterly naive to believe otherwise. An example based on personal experience: “Yes, we concede he was hit in the head with the falling object, but he wouldn’t have been hit in the head had he not been standing there.” Of course there is no rational reason to contend he shouldn’t have been standing there except for the purpose of obfuscation. 

 McCraw’s job is to defend not just the Times’ responsibility to present the truth regardless of who likes it and, at the same time, anyone and everyone committed to truth-telling. The New York Times has a long and distinguished history of presenting the truth and the facts that support those truths. McCraw describes in detail the careful process of vetting facts. Threats of jail, financial ruin, and who knows what else – a plague of locusts perhaps – are the weapons used by those whose interests are not well served by truth. All of this keeps the Times’ legal staff busy and their work interesting. Because truth in these times has become a precious commodity I urge you to take the time to read Mr. McCraw’s book, to understand the difficulties of telling the truth and, above all, the absolute necessity and responsibility for all of us to be truthfully informed. Actual facts do not equate with alternate facts any more than honest and responsibly reported news equates with “fake” news. Facts do not “belong” to anyone – they live on their own.

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