Mark Twain is often quoted as saying “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”
You might wonder if he actually said that, because Twain is one of those people who get various clever or inspirational quotes randomly tacked on to their names, like Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Mother Theresa.
(“People are as happy as they make up their minds to be,” attributed to Abraham Lincoln because of a 1960s Disney movie.)
I know Twain actually said the thing about supposing, because I looked it up, and it’s from a posthumously-published portion of his autobiography. See? He was right!
The problem is that supposing is also a lot easier and, frankly, more profitable than finding out.
I’ve been writing this column for a long time now, and I enjoy it, and some of you seem to as well (or are annoyed enough to keep coming back to see what I’m wrong about this week).
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But it’s the least important part of what I do at the paper. News is always more important, whether that’s politics or crime or community coverage. A paper that lets you know about the local community events and bottle drives is a better paper than one that has a lot of angry, contentious opinion writers.
I’ve been thinking about this because Tucker Carlson got the axe at Fox News last week, and it was treated as a big story within the world of journalism. I will admit to having followed it avidly.
My politics are not exactly aligned with Carlson’s, a man whose worldview embraced a nasty strain of cruelty and xenophobia. I’m glad to see him gone from the airwaves. The world is a little better for his absence.
But it’s not a story about journalism, really.
Because Carlson was not a journalist. He has been accused (and I would agree with this) of being a demagogue. But even if you agreed with him, he was definitely operating on the opinion side of the ledger. I understand that many years ago he actually wrote some of what you might call news and features, but his show was not a news program. It was news-adjacent, at best.
Carlson was just one of the most fetid examples of an inescapable trend. Whether left or right, opinion and invective is more popular than news.
News is meant to have, if not perfect impartiality, a detachment from emotion. It’s not meant to directly offer opinions. It’s supposed to provide the public with the best possible information about what’s happening right now. That’s a tough task, and no news organization in the world has ever fully lived up to it.
But it’s a goal worth pursuing, if only because behind it lies an important ideal: people should have as much good information as possible, and then be able to make up their own minds.
The rise and dominance of opinion, the cult of supposing, is pushing news more and more to the sidelines.
It’s fine to have a place for opinion in the paper. Supposing is nice.
But finding out is better.
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