FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2022
Basic sad present-day logic: We'll be the first to admit it!
Until this very morning, we had no idea that there was such a thing as The National Butterfly Center.
We didn't know that it's found in South Texas. We didn't know that it's run by a non-profit organization called the North American Butterfly Association—and we certainly didn't know that a swarm of the usual apparent crackpots have charged it with terrible crimes.
That said, there is such a place, along the border, way down in Mission, Texas. In this morning's Washington Post, Marisa Iati calls the roll of the usual alleged heinous crimes.
Headline included, Iati's report starts like this:
National Butterfly Center closes after repeated threats stemming from false sex-trafficking claims
The National Butterfly Center in South Texas will be closed “for the immediate future” because of baseless attacks stemming from a clash over immigration enforcement at the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, the organization said Wednesday.
The nonprofit center in Mission has endured a firestorm in recent years amid an ongoing lawsuit against the former Trump administration, which sought to build part of a border wall on its property, and the fundraising organization We Build the Wall. Right-wing groups have falsely claimed the butterfly center illegally smuggles people into the United States and facilitates sex trafficking.
Leadership of the 100-acre butterfly preserve said they chose to shut their doors out of concern for the safety of visitors and their staff, whom they will continue to pay.
According to Iati's report, the usual suspects have been making the usual claims about the usual subject—the wholly predictable trafficking of children.
At one point not too long ago, such trafficking was said to be running through a Washington, D.C. pizza joint. Now, the usual crackpots say such trafficking is being run through, and apparently by, The National Butterfly Center!
These claims have a certain familiar crackpot feel. In fairness, contemporary claims of this type run all the way back through the crackpot preschool child abuse claims of the 1980s, the non-political forerunners to the crackpot Pizzagate claims.
These claims about the Butterfly Center have a certain familiar feel. That said, we were struck by the wandering logic in Iati's otherwise highly instructive report—in the wandering way she characterized these eye-catching allegations.
To wit—and hold onto your hats:
In the headline, and in Iati's second paragraph, Post readers are explicitly told that the sex trafficking claims are "false."
That said, it's famously hard to "prove a negative." Later, Iati cites the local chief of police, and the best he can do is this:
IATI: Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez said there was no evidence that the butterfly center was involved in any form of trafficking. The U.S. Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a message.
Chief Dominguez says there is "no evidence" that the claims are true. That, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that the claims are false.
Later, Iati seems to record the state of play in a third manner—one which echoes a term she used right in her opening paragraph:
IATI: Baseless theories have sometimes led to violence in recent years. In 2016, a North Carolina man charged into a pizza restaurant in Northwest D.C. with a military-style rifle to investigate a false Internet rumor that it was the site of a pedophile ring. A gunman later killed more than 20 people outside a Walmart store in El Paso, Tex., after allegedly penning a manifesto citing a false theory that a secret group of elites was trying to destroy the White race.
The National Butterfly Center expressed astonishment last week that it was the target of similar false theories. The preserve said it educates more than 35,000 visitors each year about conservation efforts and offers an annual Texas Butterfly Festival...
In that passage, Iati says the Pizzagate violence stemmed from a "baseless" theory. In her next paragraph, she seems to say that the Butterfly Center has been the target of similar theories—but now, she says those similar theories are "false."
What's a scrupulous and exacting journalist to do in a situation like this? Iati is wrestling here with a familiar type of dilemma:
It's extremely easy for someone to make a claim. But it's famously hard for the subject of many claims to "prove a negative"—to disprove somebody's claim.
Sometimes it can be done—a person can prove he was in Detroit when a crime occurred in Dallas. But for the most part, it's hard to prove that Person A didn't do something. Keeping that basic fact in mind, how should news orgs describe a charge, or a set of charges, like the ones at issue here?
Let's recall the state of play:
Right in its headline, the Post has said that these charges are "false." Later, though, the paper seems to say that the charges are "baseless" (whatever that is taken to mean)—and when it cites the local police chief, he merely says there is "no evidence" showing the charges are true.
To our ear, these charges sound like the usual crackpot claims made by the usual crackpots. Our present-day culture is swimming in crackpots, and in their various eye-catching claims. That said, important journalistic questions lurk at the heart of a basic logical problem:
What's the right way to describe such claims? Should the Post be saying that these charges are "false," or should it be saying something different?
We have a strong opinion on this matter—and yes, we think it makes an actual difference. Among other things, we're thinking here of the way our journalists and our cable entertainers should describe the endless claims made by Donald J. Trump.
We have a strong opinion on this matter—and we think it makes a large difference. For today, we leave a hint:
We're going to guess that the charges against the Butterfly Center are false. But we're willing to bet the house that these apparently ludicrous claims are completely unfounded, and we see no sign that Iati's editors told her to deal with that point.
Has anyone ever offered anything resembling evidence in support of these very serious claims? Iati doesn't speak to that basic point—and yes, it makes a large difference.
We'll relate this back to Trump's endless array of unfounded claims at some point. In the meantime, our stars will keep enjoying the fun of attacking his "lies," and our national schism will widen.
Iati was facing a difficult task. But should she have called those claims "false?"