The Pessimist’s View of Facts

by Michelle Dean

It hasn’t been a good fall for firm believers in stable capital-T Truth, has it?

The courtroom, which Americans often seem to venerate as a kind of church, hit a lot of speedbumps. Here’s just two: A significant swath of the country was obsessed with Serial, the podcast which deconstructed a fifteen-year-old murder prosecution in Baltimore and found more than a few factual holes in the case. But unless some big reveal is waiting for us in the Thursday finale, the podcasters didn’t find exonerating evidence, either, for the man convicted of the offense. Similarly, in spite of the theatrics of a three-month grand jury, the “truth” about what happened to Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 5 remains subject to considerable dispute. (The very latest from The Smoking Gun has it that one of the key witnesses in the case had a history of racism and fabrication.)

And it’s obviously not just the court system that seems to be failing at truth-telling. The debacle of Rolling Stone‘s article about rape at the University of Virginia rages on. It’s exposed what a lot of journalists already knew: even the fanciest magazine pieces can have shadowy bits and rely on unconfirmed accounts. As though to prove that point, just yesterday New York magazine found itself thrown onto a similar fire when the New York Observer revealed that a high-schooler had entirely fabricated his account of being a multi-millionaireNew York is fact-checked, but that wasn’t a failsafe here.

For some people this is very depressing. They’ll write you long op-ed pieces decrying the work of lazy judges, craven lawyers, and shoddy reporters. There’s often a sense of betrayal driving those pieces, anger at professionals for not doing their jobs. I don’t excuse any malfeasance of course, and my opinion of Bob McCulloch is extremely low. But I’m rather more ambivalent about whether it’s a bad thing that we all recognize that the Truth isn’t one, and it’s often hard to uncover.

Obviously I’d like not to have to second-guess every piece of big journalism I read. Obviously I’d like to think that the courts are doing the best they can. But I was once a lawyer. Seeing how courtroom sausage got made undermined any faith I’d had in the relationship between litigation and the truth. I’ll spare you my full Eeyore on this subject, but suffice to say that the rules of evidence, and the winner-takes-all attitude of the judicial system, don’t have much to do with finding out what really happened.

When I first became a journalist I thought that things in this field would be better. But then I learned to report by being someone’s fact-checker. It was intellectually transformative. Trying to nail down the simplest things, like dates, turned into hours of discussion, phone calls, cross-checking documents and interview transcripts and more than once, the weather report. There were few outright lies involved, but lots of half-memories, mix-ups, and forgetfulness. The truth could get to be a bit of a black hole.

Recognizing that doesn’t, to my mind, excuse laziness. If anything it makes you more vigilant than you might otherwise be. It makes you want to ask about the work behind the story. Call me a glum Canadian if you like, but I think self-doubt can actually be positive. I don’t think the blind self-confidence we encourage in prosecutors and sometimes journalists is always that great for them. The latter half of 2014 has been clear enough testament of that.