The trouble with columnists

Local opinion brokers struggle with facts, reality in their work

July 2, 2005

by David Kopel

Columnists are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And a column which uses invented facts to attack somebody is a waste of the readers' time.

Criticizing the proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, Rocky Mountain Newscolumnist Bill Johnson declared that Sen. Ken Salazar, who supports the proposed amendment, must have "found fault with the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who opined, with the same issue before him, that the 'principle of free speech is not free speech for those who agree with us, but freedom for the speech we hate.' "

Actually, Holmes was not writing about "the same issue." In United States v. Schwimmer, he was dissenting from a Supreme Court majority which agreed that citizenship could be denied to a pacifist immigrant who refused to promise to take up arms to defend the United States.

In addition, Johnson garbled the Holmes language, which is: "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate." Interestingly, the garbled version of the quote in Johnson's June 24 column appears in the June 23 English-language, Web-based edition of Pravda.The only difference is that Johnson's text adds a comma.

Johnson's column extolled "the amazingly beautiful and wise document the Founding Fathers crafted 217 years ago. Yes, that is the sound of Franklin, Jefferson, Hancock, et al., marveling at it all. And spinning in their graves." But neither Thomas Jefferson nor John Hancock participated in the Constitutional Convention, and accordingly, they are not among the Founders who "crafted" the Constitution.

David Harsanyi's June 23 Denver Postcolumn was headlined "What's permissible to ACLU?" He wrote "I'm sure they were mortified when an AFA coach hung a banner that read, 'I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.' . . . Problem is, if that banner had read, 'I am a member of Team Bin Laden,' the ACLU would have a lawyer shielding his First Amendment rights . . . And that's hypocrisy."

Harsanyi is right that it would be hypocritical for the ACLU to criticize a Jesus banner and to defend an Osama bin Laden banner. But the column offers no evidence that the ACLU would defend a bin Laden banner displayed by a coach at a public university. It's not fair to charge a group with hypocrisy based solely on a guess about what it might do.

Mike Littwin of the News(June 16) and Postblogger Dani Newsum (June 17) invented their own facts in criticizing Rep. Bob Beauprez's use of the phrase "Mexican time" (a phrase which is used by many Mexicans, including as the title of a book by Mexico's greatest author, Carlos Fuentes). Littwin spun a tale in which Beauprez yelled "chop, chop" at a Mexican swimming pool attendant, ordering the attendant to bring Beauprez a new bathrobe.

Newsum snarled, "I guess the help just didn't run that poolside margarita to Beauprez fast enough . . . I bet 'that term' was used a lot in his country club too."

It was clear to the reader that Littwin and Newsum were making up their nasty poolside scenarios, but a news-side column that depends on imaginary facts (or on malicious conjecture about how people talk in private) is pointless.

If any readers have been hoping that I will eventually criticize Postcolumnist Diane Carman, abandon all hope. Carman's leftist opinions make me want to pull out what little hair I have left, but she is meticulous with her facts, and she makes her points without relying on pretend events or conjecture.

According to the June 17 Ticker - a collection of short facts on Page 1 of the NewsBusiness section - there were 2,867 "Fortune 500 companies with policies barring workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians. That's up from 2,293 in 1993, according to a Human Rights Campaign report." An impressive figure, but obviously impossible, since there are only 500 companies in the Fortune 500 (which is a list of America's biggest publicly-traded companies).

According to Page 24 of the HRC report, the "2,867" figure is the total number of all employers, including government entities, with an anti-discrimination policy. The number of Fortune 500 companies with such a policy is 410.

Kudos to both Denver dailies for outstanding coverage of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament. Instead of just reporting on famous players and daily results, the papers also covered strategy, tactics, course history, obscure players, and even caddies.  

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