Truth vigilantes and assumptions

In attempting to clarify and explain his infamous “truth vigilante” post, Arthur Brisbane wrote the following about the difficulty of trying to to “rebut ‘facts’ that are offered by newsmakers when those ‘facts’ are in question”:

To illustrate the difficulty of it, the first example I used in my blogpost concerned the Supreme Court’s official statement that Clarence Thomas had misunderstood the financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings.

If you think that should be rebutted in the text of a story, it means you think a reporter can crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back. Or perhaps you think the reporter should just write that the “misunderstanding” excuse is bull and let it go at that. I would respectfully suggest that’s not a good approach.

I think there is a flaw in Brisbane’s reasoning. I also think that by addressing the flaw we can begin to see how a reporter might rebut the claim while not being paralyzed by the thicket of questions about “facts” that concerns Brisbane.

Is it true that to rebut Justice Thomas’s explanation, a reporter needs to “crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back”? Yes, given a certain set of assumptions. The assumptions would lead one to conclude that whether the form was filled out correctly depended entirely on Thomas.

But that set is certainly not the only set of reasonable assumptions one can make about the Thomas affair. Look, Julian Fernandez offers another set of assumptions in the comments to Brisbane’s second post:

I am sorry, but to lend credence to Justice Thomas’ ridiculous assertion that he “misunderstood” income reporting requirements demanded of someone in his position is reprehensible. I am no psychic and I did not crawl into the mind of Thomas to form my opinion, but I assume that he employs an accountant, a financial advsor and that he and Mrs. Thomas retain personal counsel to advise them on matters of compliance to tax laws. Given his position as ultimate arbiter of what passes for justice in the US, I would also assume that he took great care to understand the laws that pertain to him, his spouse and the requirements that his seat on the Court demand of them both. (emphasis added)

I have no clue who Julian Fernandez is. But I am relatively certain of his conclusion and the assumptions that helped him get there. I am free to challenge those assumptions if I wish, but either way I am in a much better position to assess his argument.

A reporter could call out Thomas’s claim as bogus under those same assumptions that Fernandez uses. I would have no problem with the reporter doing so, as long as the reporter stated those assumptions, could defend them, and could specify what a challenger would need to present to change the reporter’s mind.

Similarly, if Brisbane wants to assume that we must know Thomas’s state of mind to judge whether his “misunderstanding” claim is credible, he is free to do so. That might be a fair, correct assumption. Accordingly, as long as Brisbane lacks access to Thomas’s cranium, it’s perfectly reasonable that Brisbane feels uncomfortable concluding anything about the financial statement. Perhaps his set of assumptions would allow him to state that it was “highly unlikely” — that’s fine as well. It’s his argument; he gets to choose.

The important thing is that he makes those assumptions clear to us, the readers, those who have to receive and assess his position. The same goes for reporters.

“But there will be readers who say that the assumptions of Times reporters are unfair or subjective.”

Undoubtedly. But that possibility should not cause alarm, for three reasons.

First, those assumptions will be embedded in the journalism one way or the other. It is much more difficult for us, who are supposed to make use of the journalism in our lives, to know whether the assumptions are reasonable if we have to psychoanalyze each story.

Second, when readers say the assumptions of reporters are unfair, reporters have the opportunity to ask, “why?”

If readers provide a persuasive argument as to why, say, Fernandez’s assumptions are more reasonable than Brisbane’s, then in doing so reporters are informed that their work is incomplete. They have been informed that their conclusion does not check out because the foundations on which it was built are unstable. I would think that a reporter should see this as a benefit, as I assume reporters would not want to leave a false story uncorrected.

Is it really a big deal if a reporter’s assumptions were wrong now and again? It happens to everyone. But the reporter’s conclusion requires reexamination under a new set of assumptions.

Third, if readers do not provide a persuasive argument as to why the reporter’s assumptions were wrong, then the reporters need not change their minds. They and those readers will have differing assumptions. Life goes on. The readers can read something else if they please.

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