“There is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation,” wrote Howard Zinn in the afterword to the 2003 edition of his wonderful book, A People’s History of the United States. “Behind every fact presented to the world — by a teacher, a writer, anyone — is a judgment. The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and that other facts, omitted, are not important.”
Zinn, the Spelman College and Boston University professor who was a familiar figure in Wellfleet until his death in 2010, went on in that essay to write about the profoundly important facts that were routinely omitted from the orthodox histories that dominated American culture. His own revolutionary view of American history taught us to look behind the glib statements of political leaders and the “experts” who are routinely quoted in the news media.
His concern with the judgments that lay behind the privileged position of some facts and the rejection and suppression of others undeniably applies to journalism as well as the writing of history. It is the reason why reporters for two newspapers can write about the same event and both articles can be completely factual yet convey wildly different and even contradictory pictures of what happened.
We spend a lot of time at the Independent talking about which stories and which facts in those stories are important to get into the paper, and we don’t always agree with each other. We thought long and hard this week about a story that may well strike some readers as gratuituous: reporting on a series of threats made against town employees in Truro and resulting in a harassment prevention order by a district court judge in May 2018. “Why is this news now?” some asked.
It’s a legitimate question. My answer, in the end, was “Why was this not news then?” Had this deeply disturbing story been properly reported when it happened, a year and a half ago, one could more reasonably argue that it was time to just let it blow over. But it was not reported, anywhere. And though the story raises important questions about violent and hateful speech and the disposition of lethal weapons in the possession of such speakers, no one in Truro’s town government or public safety agencies will talk about it even now.
There is obviously much more to this story than we have reported this week. We have worked to stick to the facts that can be reliably verified. And we are determined to keep telling the story as we learn more about it.
Our purpose in reporting stories like this one is not to accuse or to assign blame. We suspect that those who prefer secrecy to transparency are decent people with honest motives. And our judgment may be wrong in this case. If it is, we want to know why. But no one is talking.