Facts, Fictions, and Everything Else In Between – Part 1

Now that I’ve decided to pursue my interest in learning more about the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I’ll be reading many different books from different authors. I’ll be subjected to a barrage of “facts” and information.

Unfortunately, facts are not always as plain and simple as they appear to be. This has always been true, and it’s become even more so in this age of the internet.

As an amateur historian, I’ve learned to read with a critical eye. I’ve learned, too, to question what I read, to delve deeper when necessary, and to search for corroborating evidence to support the claims being made.  It’s paid off.

For the benefit of those who might be doing a bit of searching or researching on their own, I thought I’d take a moment to list some of the guiding principles I use in my attempts to discern facts from fictions — and to recognize a lot of things that fall between the extremes.

First, what is a fact? Dictionary definitions speak of facts as things which are “indisputably the case”.  My personal definition is that a fact is information that’s generally accepted by consensus. Additionally, I know that I could find evidence or documentation to support the claim.

Fact: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917.

When I read a fact such as this, I can accept it with a near 100% degree of certainty that it’s correct. There’s always a slight chance that the book I’m reading might have a misprint, but if and when I turn to another source and find the same information, I can reasonably assume that this fact is correct.

There are a lot of “correct facts” to be found. In researching a person or an event, these obviously correct facts should be accepted. It’s not possible to verify every statement. At some point, we have to say “Yes, I believe this is true,” add it to our list of facts, and move on.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find complete fictions or fabrications. These are usually so far-fetched, we have no trouble recognizing them for what they are. With the proliferation of tabloids, online news reports, spoof sites, and anybody-can-publish-anything journalism, the day of “If you read it in the paper, it must be true” is long gone. Claims that aliens abducted JFK or that he survived the shooting but remained a vegetable hidden away in a secret location probably aren’t really facts, despite the headlines telling us that it’s so. Any time a source offers a hard-to-swallow idea with no possible means of verification, we can probably discount it. We don’t really need to spend time disputing the claim.

But…crazy though it sounds, we should never close our minds completely to any possibility, no matter how ridiculous it seems to be. Even though what we’re hearing, reading, or seeing may be outlandish and wholly untrue as presented, there may be a tiny little bit of truth hidden away.  Just as I’m willing to accept “correct facts” with a “near 100% degree of certainty”, I can comfortably reject “obvious fictions” with the same “near 100% degree.”

Most of what we read when researching history, however, is neither an absolute, unequivocal fact, nor a complete fabrication. That’s where the challenge arises. How are we to judge the accuracy of all the rest of it? How can we decide what’s true and what’s not?

Between the facts and the fictions that are published, what we’ll most often find are “reported facts”. This is information that we could probably verify if we chose to do so.

Let’s talk about verification for a moment. In research, what standards apply?

Here are my guidelines:

  • Is the source reputable?
  • Have I read the same information from other sources?
  • Could I find legal documents, certificates, transcripts or other source materials if I looked?
  • Are there any “primary sources” available?

“Reported facts” look like this, quoted from The Man Who Killed Kennedy by Roger Stone:

Longtime aides and secret service agents are in agreement that even before his presidency, Johnson was known for doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, simply because he could. The Secret Service, the FBI, and the CIA did a commendable job of covering up Johnson’s true persona. And what an evil personality he had: vicious, mean spirited, vengeful, aggressive, arrogant, abusive, sex crazed . . . the descriptions of his vile actions go on and on.

Lyndon_Johnson_Portrait

Should I accept this assessment, these “facts”,  as true? Yes, I will. Here’s why. First, there’s the old adage to consider the source. That’s nowhere more true than in historical research of any kind. I’m willing to trust the author, Roger Stone, based on his biography and based, too, on what I’ve read of his work to this point. He’s previously mentioned many “facts” I’ve already accepted as correct. No source is likely to ever have my 100% acceptance, but as before, I can go with a “high degree” of certainty that what I’m reading is probably correct. It’s not 100%. Not even 95% — but I’ll talk more about that later.

Back to the claims of LBJ’s vile actions. Have I come across these claims in other sources? Yes, most definitely. I’ve studied presidential history for many years and have previously read numerous books and articles about Lyndon Johnson. What I’m reading now in Stone’s book is in complete accord with “reported facts” I’ve previously read in other sources.

Could I find additional proof of these claims? I think so. To be honest, this test of veracity often comes down to a “judgment call.”  In this instance, I strongly suspect that I could find any number of verifiable source documents — journal entries, personal letters, interviews — which would show these reported aspects of Lyndon Johnson’s personality.

As with “correct facts” — ones that can be easily verified and really aren’t questionable — I’m willing to accept “reported facts” as long as I feel they meet my standards for verification.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept everything, even from a source I trust. I will always question what I’m reading, and if something doesn’t sound right or feel right, I’ll dig a little deeper.

That’s what happened when I came to this “reported fact”, again from The Man Who Killed Kennedy:

In Johnny Rosselli’s final interview, Jack Anderson of the Washington Post heard a lot about the Kennedy assassination. The key bit of information in Anderson’s article was that the Mafia had ordered Jack Ruby’s slaying of Oswald. 1

OK, so you notice that little subscript numeral there, right? Yeah, it’s a footnote, a reference to a source.  Footnotes are good, but they’re even better if and when they’re followed to back to their source.

At the time I read these “reported facts”, I was trusting Roger Stone…hmmm, about 95%. But this information stopped me in my reading tracks. Was it true that mobster Johnny Roselli had told the Washington Post in an interview that the Mafia had ordered Ruby’s slaying?

When I checked the footnote and saw that this “interview” had been published in The Washington Post in September, 1976, my trust factor with Stone began to go down a bit. Johnny Roselli didn’t give anyone an interview in September, 1976. His hacked-up body had been found in an oil drum floating in Biscayne Bay several weeks before.

Needless to say, I immediately searched out the source material — the article that ran in The Washington Post that day. What I found was not an interview with Johnny Roselli, not even an interview made before his death. It was a piece by columnist Jack Anderson reporting on Roselli’s demise, and mentioning some of the information the mobster purported to have.

The article says things like this:

“Roselli hinted to associates…”

“By Roselli’s cryptic account…”

“Roselli could never be pinned down on names and details…”

“…difficult to assess whether he knew what he was talking about…”

“…no real evidence to support Roselli’s story.”

All in all, a far cry (in my opinion) from Roger Stone’s claim. My trust factor after this? About 90%. He’s still a credible source, but one who obviously bends “facts” when necessary in order to bolster his own conclusions.

For now, I’ll leave this little dissertation at this point. I do have much more to say about facts and fictions, about pseudo-facts, speculations, opinions, and statements that can be both true and misleading.

Watch for “Facts, Fictions, and Everything Else In Between — Part 2” coming soon.

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