The non-facts of the matter

Kevin Cowherd

November 19, 1990|By Kevin Cowherd

THE OTHER DAY I received an angry letter from a Mr. E.L. Miller demanding to know where I get my "facts."

As you can imagine, the letter upset me to no end, since this column has always assiduously avoided the use of facts in favor of vicious gossip, wild speculation, hyperbole, innuendo and -- let's just come out and say it -- outright falsehoods.

Now, what exactly am I trying to say?

Am I stating unequivocally and for the record that not one single fact has ever sullied this space?

Am I saying that the only way a fact would find its way into this column is if an armed intruder held a gun to my head, sat me at the word processor and ordered me to write something factual about, oh, kinetic energy?

No. I am not saying that at all. I wish you people would listen. And stop putting words in my mouth.

What I'm saying is that occasionally, either through computer error, sloppy copy-editing or because the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars, a fact will rear its ugly head in one of these columns.

There was, for example, one memorable occasion when I referred to James A. Garfield and noted in passing that he was the 20th president of the United States and -- here's where it gets really weird -- this actually turned out to be a fact.

Well. You can imagine how I felt. Naturally, I offered to run a public apology. But my managing editor -- as fine a fellow as ever walked the Earth and one who keeps an open mind on most any subject, even that of, say, pay raises for deserving employees -- said no, don't bother with an apology, nobody takes that garbage seriously anyway. Which was a fine time to break it to me.

The problem with facts is that generally they have to be accompanied by research. And research, quite frankly, takes time. And effort.

It is so much easier to just -- off something irresponsible such as "mimes, easily the most despised of our so-called 'street artists,' commit most of the petty crimes in this country" and be done with it.

So what if it's not true? It fills up space doesn't it? And think of the clever headline possibilities using the by-play between "mimes" and "crimes."

(Another thing about attacking mimes is that you run very little risk of reader backlash. There are only two or three people in the entire country who actually enjoy mimes. And the mime community wouldn't dare respond, as it is fully aware of the low regard in which it is held.

(Besides, since they won't speak, how would mimes register their complaint? Would they flood the switchboard of this newspaper with phone calls, get me on the line and lash out with two minutes of silence? No, we're on pretty safe ground here.)

The hang-up I have with research is that it involves actually leaving your desk for a trip to the library. Or calling some so-called expert on the phone. It's so much easier to go off the top of your head.

If I'm doing a story on Lyme disease, instead of wasting time with a phone call to those know-it-alls at the Center for Disease Control, I'd rather bang out a snappy lead that sums up the problem, such as: "They're all doomed, now it's just a matter of days."

Another problem with facts is that they interrupt the flow of one's prose. If you check these dispatches from the Persian Gulf, you'll notice how choppy and devoid of imagination they are.

How can you get any kind of story line going when you're constantly stopping to write: "Saudi Arabia, a hereditary monarchy with an economy dominated by the oil and natural gas industry . . .?"

My God. Even the most gifted writer would be hard put to make something lyrical out of that.

Another problem with facts is that they unfairly heighten the expectations of your readers. If you develop a reputation as a writer who tosses facts will-nilly into a column, pretty soon your readers will expect accuracy, fairness and (among the real fanatics) good taste.

Sure, like I have time for all that.

Hey, Mr. or Ms. Reader, this is a daily newspaper, OK? I don't have time to sit around and scratch my head and think: "Gee, maybe I was a little hard on that opera singer, comparing her voice to the sound of a rutting caribou" or "Perhaps I should call Senator So-and-So to get his side of this adultery thing."

So don't talk to me about facts, Mr. E.L. Miller.

You ask me, they're nothing but trouble.

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