The difference between facts and opinions

Opinion March 2, 2012 5 Comments

by Pete Mazzaccaro

Editors of newspapers and websites everywhere probably hear the question more than any a: “How could you publish that?”

As a general rule, it’s the first volley by an angry reader who has been mortally offended by something he or she has just read. Often the offending piece is a letter or an opinion. And almost always, defending publication of the piece to someone who has been offended by it is really tough if not impossible.

These discussions quickly become faith-based. Both the reader and the editor believe in their conclusions – the reader in having the right to be offended and the editor in having the right to publish the offending piece – and are not easily going to back down.

I recently found myself in just this situation. The particulars are not as important as the general issue. A reader was incensed by statements made in an opinion piece. The writer’s conclusions were wrong. The writer wasn’t making logical sense. The whole piece was just a big lie. I should never have published the piece, the reader said. In fact I should retract the whole thing.

Now it’s probably worth mentioning something that I think many readers don’t understand. When an editor publishes a piece, it does not mean the editor agrees with its contents (Fox News and Al Gore’s network excepted). It means only that the editor finds the arguments within compelling and/or timely.

Editor’s want debate in the pages. Strong opinion and debate is what keeps an opinion page lively. If readers are not driven to respond, you’ll quickly have an opinion page that’s as lifeless as computer manual.

Because of that, I regularly run opinions I don’t agree with. I run opinions that I think are are hyperbolic. I run opinions that I think are loony. But they are opinions. Which brings me to my next point. Opinions writers should not misstate facts, but they are allowed to draw their own conclusions no matter how wrong those conclusions appear to be.

This is where defending the offending opinion can get tricky. How do you explain the fine points of opinion to a reader who was so maddened by the piece that it compelled him to burn all his copies of your publication in his backyard?

That reader isn’t interested in the fact that you want to keep your opinion page lively. He wants an explanation as to how such falsehoods could appear in print. He will quickly point out D. Patrick Moynihan’s axiom on opinions: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

And this is true. There is such a thing as a wrong opinion. You can’t, for example, believe that the world is flat and be right at the same time. But those sorts of statements aren’t generally the kind that offend.

What often offends people, what readers take exception to time and again, are statements of opinion that express causal relationships with which the reader simply doesn’t agree. We see this in politics all the time, where there are two views and those who hold one particular view believe those who don’t aren’t just “of a different opinion” but dead wrong.

There are those who believe the Constitution protects gay marriage. And there are those who don’t. By printing those last 16 words, I’m sure I’ll provoke response by advocates of either side.

The thing is this: There is definitely subjective truth. And there are definitely people who will purposefully bend and ignore subjective truth to work an agenda. But I think we’re often wrong if we jump to the conclusion that opinions we don’t agree with are purposefully doing just that. I think we’ve all become so skeptical that it is the first conclusion we come to.

I, for one, am pretty sure I disagree with nearly everything Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum says. But I think he really believes what he says. He’s drawn conclusions from experience and facts that are in direct opposition with the conclusions I’ve drawn from some of the same things.

Yes, debate and argument can be exhausting. And it’s not fun to read things you don’t agree with. Happens to me every day. Yet having these debates are important. Reading opinions we don’t agree with is important. Progress is built by arguing about these things until we do finally begin to agree on things that we allbeleive are true, like: Women should be allowed to vote and work (right Rick?).

So I am sorry I if offend from time to time with opinions published here in the Local. But offending you is not my intention. Only by debating these things in the open can we get anywhere at all. That is exactly what a paper, or any other forum anywhere, should be doing. Anything else just isn’t worth it.

 

 

 

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  • Tracy

    Santorum is not my first choice for the GOP nominee, would not be in my first hundred choices really. But your argument for how to digest opinions seems oddly self defeating. You share: “There is definitely subjective truth. And there are definitely people who will purposefully bend and ignore subjective truth to work an agenda.” You say it is wrong to judge bending and ignoring subjective truth as being purposeful – jumping to that conclusion of others…

    OK. But you go on to opine: “Women should be allowed to vote and work (right Rick?)” I am assuming you know his wife is both an attorney and a nurse by degrees, and he met her working in a law firm… How is the idea Santorum is against women being “allowed” to work not an agenda driven remark ignoring subjective truths, a danger you caution in play for those not careful?

    I realize it is tongue and cheek and while calling him a caveman is fair game for a person on the political left, ignoring the degrees and work history of his wife refutes the need for caution in respecting your conclusion process here does it not? How is subjective truth not both ignored and bent by you here in the shaping of an agenda? I thought that was a no-no here… Sharing the zillion stupid things he has said over the years will not take away her degrees and work history…

    The worst thing about how this is self defeating as a way to digest opinion writing in my view though, is despite I agree with 95% of what you share, I think you shoot yourself in the foot at the end, and worst of all for me — you make me feel like a defense of Santorum is in order… And I am not a big Santorum guy so am not beaming with thanks for that…

  • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

    Tracy,

    On one hand, sure, maybe the “right, Rick?” was one wink too many. To be fair, he has come out against a woman’s right to work. He recently took flack for a number of comments he’s made in speeches and in books about women, particularly regarding reproductive rights:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/santorums-quotes-on-the-role-of-women/2012/02/10/gIQABbMu4Q_story.html

    I’ll even give him a tiny bit of credit for calling Rush Limbaugh’s recent (and incredibly misogynist) insults of Sandra Flucke, ridiculous. Though, personally, I’d like to see Republican candidates come out a little stronger in denouncing what Rush said, which I think may have even crossed a line for him. (And I’m the last guy you’ll ever hear use the term “crossed the line.”)

    But you miss the point, somewhat. My intention above wasn’t to call Rick Santorum anything but a guy I disagree with. And, no matter what I think of his opinions, they’re his opinions. And he may be one of the few politicians alive for which that’s true. That’s why I used him as an example. Say what you want about the guy, but he certainly speaks for his convictions. I don’t think he should apologize or retract anything he has said. I simply won’t vote for him.

    As for defending politicians in general, I don’t recommend it.

  • Tracy

    Pete,

    I am not some humorless fuddy-duddy against witty prose. I liked the style of the quip, by all means, get your winks off, just the charge was so off target that the humor, to me, fell flat. You wrote a well crafted piece about how to digest opinion pieces from the vantage point of an editor. It was a great analysis to a point. I liked and agreed with it until that strange barb. It is like sharing what makes a great movie: the plot, the acting, and the sets — and conclude the piece recommending we all watch “Ishtar” to see greatness all come together. And you are doing it twice no less.

    You share: “To be fair, he has come out against a woman’s right to work.” What? When? A “right” he opposes?!? That would be news. He likes women, women working in the home to raise children, and for us to place the right emphasis on careers. Whether you agree with his take on the latter is neither here nor there for this discussion, but you frame it absurdly. To follow you here — Rick: “Me like women, me like women home, me not let women work….”

    You said first, “Women should be allowed to work” and then here, “He has come out against a woman’s right to work.” Where and when did this nonsense on stilts happen? This is a guy married to a well educated woman he met while recruiting her to work in the law firm where he was working – and hoped she would one day too as well. She did. He was not in some massive cognitive dissonance here either, unless your narrative is true. What are you saying? He never objected to a “right to work” or “allowing” women to work. This is a caricature on steroids. You then send a link where he also raises no such focuses that you have – just the stuff that is in the record and not in this take of yours.

    He is very outspoken on the value of working in the home with your family and not emphasizing corporate achievement as a penultimate value over motherhood. I find him unpersuasive in his views, I find him unpersuasive on many things. But he is not raising the points you do, while ignoring subjective truth – AGAIN – to set an agenda. I think you did this twice now and have no idea why.

    I think beer with your cheerios is a pretty bad idea, I think you are not dining properly when so engaged — that does not mean I am against your right to eat cheerios or want to ban beer from Chestnut Hill… I just think that beer and cheerios should be valued a certain way with respect to each other. Having an opinion on beer does not mean I wish it banned… Words mean things.

    And worst still, this is the second time I am defending a person for whom the thing I like best about him is his collection of sweater vests… I agree with you on all the other points raised, save only this…

    • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

      Oh brother… I meant he has NOT come out against women’s right to work. Geez. My fault entirely there. I’ll edit my initial comment.

      • Tracy

        Too funny then, I thought your “to be fair” was to be fair to your point, that he perhaps had been for some ban… Just glad to understand you here…

        I guess we can go back to both disagreeing with the former senator – you for disliking his conservative positions and me from wincing at his garbled and muddy explanations of conservative positions he believe in but reduces to something hard to recognize… It is fair for a conservative to believe academia tilts far left, it is finger-nails-on-the-blackboard painful enduring Santorum’s take from that, to want to send your kids attend college makes you prey or a proselytizer of snobbery….