Joel Cohen
Joel Cohen

Does opinion usurp accuracy?

We live in a changed world. No more changed than by the easy capacity of every individual to opine on virtually anything. One can do so sitting at one’s desk, thrusting a largely unconsidered thought half way around the world in the blink of an eye. We have the uncontrolled capacity to speak, even to offer a screed, alarmingly with self-anointed “expertise,” on anything holy or mundane. On anything we know, or about which we know nothing.  One can address the assembled masses at a virtual Speaker’s Corner while drinking a morning coffee, or still lying in bed.

The opinions that we so casually pronounce as if ex cathedra lack any restraint or guardrail. A newspaper prints, “This Is An Advertisement.” Whether or not the presenter wants it, it enables the reader to accept or, more important, reject, what follows — having effectively been informed of the inherent bias embedded in what the advertiser’s content intends to offer the reader.

Social media commentary presented to us daily, however, doesn’t necessarily inform the untrained reader or observer, in particular, too much about “who” the commentator beyond that he or she is an academic, a scientist or a “strategist” for one or another political party. Often that’s not nearly enough when serious matters are at stake.

Yes, if sophisticated consumers of commentary turn to FOX, CNN  or MSNBC on the one hand, or The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Washington Post or The New York Times on the other, they instantly may know what they’re getting or, maybe, they intentionally go to those outlets for that particular editorial or even news bent. They gain at least minimal insight about who provides their perspective from a simple identifying biographical note , e.g., “former Obama speechwriter,” or “former Trump public health advisor.”

Those basic and minimalist bio notes, however, don’t always tell even the sophisticated readers or observers more than the bare bones of what they might need to know. Obama speech writer? Trump medical advisor? But even given that, might anyone reading or listening believe that they’re receiving an objective, down the middle of the plate, Walter Cronkite presentation from such commentators? No. Walter Cronkite isn’t here any longer. Opinion-free reportage that he singularly exemplified has receded rapidly in the rear view mirror of contemporary discourse.

Does that mean that partisan opinions on issues of any kind — politics, religion, race and science, etc.  — lack merit or value?  Actually, the opposite. Unsurprisingly, Plato said it best: “Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.” He doesn’t reject opinion. Rather, for him, opinion facilitates fact —it is the medium, the platform, that provides the subscriber to that opinion with knowledge. Plato interestingly employs the word “knowledge,” not “truth,” as what the medium conveys.  Taking it further, as Marcus Aurelius argued, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is perspective, not the truth.” Almost as if to say that “truth,” like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. Knowledge is, frankly, the best we can hope for.

Still, doesn’t the often overbearing nature of opinion — particularly when offered by the articulately persuasive, hair blown, water carrier of a particular brand or thought perspective   — sometimes mislead the public, particularly unenlightened members of it who don’t have the time, the ability or inclination to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Imperious, of course, to say so — I guess, although that’s admittedly my opinion. Still, when one seeks to influence opinion as a commentator, one counts on how sophisticated or unsophisticated the audience might be.  But even beyond that, one can employ one’s status as a news reporter to subtly, or not-so-subtly, impart editorial opinion.  Dr. Fauci, Governor Cuomo or Donald Trump is a hero or villain depending on who (and where he’s coming from) composes the newsroom story, even if the newsroom is supposedly a venue forbidden to editorialists.

Superimposed on the overarching problem of opinion commentary is the issue of “belief.”  When a commentator offers an opinion he or she is actually attempting to impact the reader or listener. For one reason or another, he may want to persuade you that Donald Trump himself is ultimately responsible for ever-increasing anti-Asian hate crime. She may want to convince you that masks are useless placebos intended to somehow advance progressive politics. A burning question in each case relates to the actual belief of the commentator.  Is he just spouting the party line for whatever reason, or is he communicating what he truly believes? Ideally, how influenced should one be by the commentary of the opinion writer if she doesn’t actually believe in the proposition she is presenting? Shouldn’t the reader or observer be put in a position to be able to learn what the commentator really believes?

We find, today, that the border between the editorial office and the newsroom has been largely scrubbed  — particularly in cable news.  Fox News, for example, no longer claims, as did its earlier slogan, to be “Fair and Balanced.”  It’s more used current motto, “Standing Up For What’s Right,” is far more fair, far more balanced and far more accurate — notwithstanding the double entendre implicated by the phraseology. The others, CNN and MSNBC, are no better, even if there’s less screeching to be found behind those microphones.

Even still, are the commentators on both the left and right presenting what they truly believe? Never confuse having an opinion with having something to say! And never ignore the editorial dictates of the media platform where the commentator has been standing and by whom he is paid his wages.

The real question, at bottom, is how to deal with the reality that we’re constantly bombarded by opinion when we would ideally prefer to obtain unvarnished accuracy. That is, when we don’t want the view of a partisan, on either side of any issue, and what she might wish to convey on a subject of interest, maybe vital interest, to us. Politics. Public Health. Justice.

The answer may be disappointing in the extreme. Dr. Fauci may be the most popular man in America. Understandably so. But even he isn’t Walter Cronkite. He, too, has — maybe suffers from — his own opinions. The only way for each of us to test his opinions is to study what “the other guy” has to say, even if the other guy is a “Trump former medical advisor,” however uninspired he or she might be.

Maimonides, in “The Guide To The Perplexed,” famously said, “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it.  .  .  . The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”

Opinion usurps accuracy if allowed to. That is, when we take something for granted, or when we accept something as a “given.” Or, finally, when we take as the God’s honest truth that which is presented to us by commentators whom we like, or to whom we are drawn.

Only we can allow, or defeat, a usurpation of accuracy by opinion.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.