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CSotD: Facts Not In Evidence, and vice-versa

UK cartoonist Steve Bright leads off this chapter of our ongoing discussion of Uvalde with a cartoon about Ukraine.

 

And why not? As Michael de Adder notes, War is war, whether waged between countries or within one. We are re-enacting the similar scene from Saving Private Ryan over and over, as if it were on a loop.

And as if we can do nothing about it.

The adage Brighty quotes has a muddled history, but I like the version that appeared in a 1904 religious magazine, “The Christian Work and the Evangelist”:

The way the news from the seat of war is stated one day, reiterated the next day and “authoritatively contradicted” the day following forcibly illustrates the fact that truth often takes slow trains in war times and arrives at the station much behind time.

Other versions assume that, when stated facts don’t line up with the truth, someone is lying. This has rarely been my experience as a reporter and smacks of conspiracy theories, or, at least, in an unreasonable faith in the level of knowledge authorities possess.

I’ve been lied to, and I’ve been spun, but it’s far more common to find Hanlon’s Razor the issue: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Even that is also a bit too conspiratorial, since it’s nearly always more an issue of fallibility than stupidity. The stupidity involved comes when people who should know better fail to act accordingly.

As a police detective warned me of a witness, “If he says it’s raining, you’d better look out the window.”

Excellent advice, which I applied to police detectives as well.

Another adage is that “News is only the first rough draft of history,” and anyone who has sat in the editor’s chair knows that first rough drafts invariably — invariably — require revisions, clarifications, deletions and additional reporting.

 

What police detectives and reporters can agree on is the frequency with which eyewitnesses report a cascade of contradictory “facts,” and how difficult it is to reconstruct even a fairly simple event when nobody’s lying but even the best witnesses are only describing the part of the elephant they touched.

I have more such stories than space to tell them, but I once got called back from dinner because, following a chase that ended at a roadblock, the local TV station found, interviewed and broadcast, a witness who reported a fusillade of gunfire from police, which was not in the story I’d filed.

 

It was not in my story because I’d been at the scene shortly after and had walked around the suspect’s car, which had no bullet holes, only a smashed bumper from running into a squad car and a crack in the windshield from his shotgun’s recoil when he killed himself.

By the time I got hold of the “witness,” he was no longer talking. Turned out he had not seen anything, only heard the chaos from inside a nearby convenience store.

And that, O Best Beloved, was back in the days of deadlines, when even the TV folks had until 6 o’clock to get it right, and we didn’t roll the presses until 10.

Today, the competition to be first has completely overtaken the competition to be accurate, and you can walk back your errors but you can’t erase them from people’s minds.

Which is why the best reporters lard their stories with “allegedly,” “apparently” and “according to police.”

 

They also ask good questions. Steve Brodner notes the heartbreaking calls that came from inside the classroom while police waited outside.

Clearly, the police waited longer than they should have, a fact nobody is denying. But, harrowing as those 911 calls are, I haven’t seen proof of their relevance to the decisions being made.

If I were reporting there, I’d ask:

A. Where are 911 calls from Uvalde answered? Were the calls being immediately relayed to the police at the scene?

B. There have been reports that the children making those calls survived. Is that accurate?

C. Is there evidence of children being killed following the initial fusillade? That is, how many children — if any — were shot while the police waited?

Which would help clear up the relevance of the calls as well as revealing the depth of folly in not taking a more aggressive approach.

Brodner is correct that the calls add to our misery, and he’s also correct that police should have acted more quickly.

Nobody is doubting either, but we don’t know if the two are linked, and those calling the police cowards are far overstepping the known facts.

Truth will out, if we don’t strangle it first.

 

Meanwhile, the NYTimes won’t have to walk back this cover.

They’re hardly the first to document the cascade of similar stories, but it doesn’t hurt to keep hammering the facts home and hope that the horror will hit people at a time when they are receptive to it.

 

Mike Lester (AMS) is clearly right that the murders in Uvalde have given gun-control advocates an opening avid gunslingers will have to deal with.

The protests outside the NRA Convention in Houston are encouraging, but, then again, everyone turned out in those pussy hats Lester notes and how did that preserve women’s rights in the years that followed?

Today, we can either piss away the current period of outrage analyzing why Sandy Hook or Marjorie Stoneman Douglas didn’t turn things around, or we can strike while the iron is hot.

Your choice.

 

Here’s an undisputable fact: Those who might have backed away have, instead, doubled down and, as Jack Ohman illustrates, have added fuel to the fire rather than working to contain it.

They might at least have had the decency to STFU. Trump solemnly read off the names of the dead, reminded conventioneers that liberals want to use those deaths as an excuse to take away their rights and then did a little dance.

 

And so here we are, as Stuart Carlson (AMS) accurately puts it: Whether horrified or not, trapped in prisons of our own devising.

Which may explain why, when Reconstruction ended in a storm of lynchings while the federal government declined to enforce the 14th Amendment, the story of Samson became popular in Black America.

 

Community Comments

#1 Paul Berge
May/30/2022
@ 7:23 am

My experience with the reliability of witnesses came during a tragic incident at a college where I was a security guard in my wet-behind-the-ears days.

A student who had been expelled at the end of the fall semester had returned to campus to collect his things and attempt to repeal his expulsion, unbeknownst to most of his friends. Feeling a headache, he lay down on the cot in his room to sleep it off, and died of an aneurism. He was discovered only after the stench had filled the hallway.

The M.E.’s opinion was that the lad had been dead 12 to 18 hours, but a distraught student told me she had seen him just that afternoon. I brought this student to the attention of authorities, but we were both told that her story was impossible.

Jumping to the present, it’s no wonder these eye-witness accounts get reported as gospel, especially when the authorities keep silent — as our local D.A. has now decreed official policy: https://journaltimes.com/news/local/blackout-racine-county-da-urges-police-to-hold-back-on-releasing-information-about-crimes-to/article_b6e8a8a6-c59e-11ec-8665-5f8a0a20b414.html

#2 Mike Peterson
May/30/2022
@ 9:20 am

Paul: I’m surprised the DA in Racine was willing to release information about her own crime against the community.

#3 Maish
May/30/2022
@ 5:57 pm

Hold on… Is Mike Lester suggesting that the Uvalde massacre was some sort of false-flag operation perpetrated by the pussycat gang to make gun enthusiasts look bad? Poor, beleaguered gun lovers! Maybe, for verisimilitude’s sake, he should have had the MAGA-hat guy punch himself in the face. Better yet, have him punch 21 innocent bystanders in the face.

#4 Bob Crittenden
May/31/2022
@ 12:40 pm

Before my retirement, I taught causal investigation classes. We always emphasized that eyewitness testimony was unreliable. We would show a film where a law professor, on the first day of classes, enters the classroom, tosses his briefcase on the table, and starts his introductory spiel to the class. A few seconds later, another (presumed) student enters. As the prof starts to berate him for being late, the kid grabs the briefcase and takes off. Long story, shorter version – students are interviewed about what they saw, and the results are tabulated. Results were all over the place.

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