Just the Facts

March 27, 2017 | Insights

By Stacy Allen

“Just the facts, ma’am.”  This was the admonition of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday from the iconic ‘60s TV series Dragnet, when interviewing a witness who would rather offer conjecture or opinion than an objective description of events.[1]  In this era of purported “fake news”, I submit that journalists have much to learn from Sgt. Friday’s simple advice for those seeking to learn the truth and report it in a way that preserves their credibility.

Having characterized the so-called mainstream news media as the “enemy”, there can be little doubt that the new Administration has declared war on much of the press.  With each new Tweet, another provocation is hurled toward traditional news organizations, in an attempt to pick a fight and prompt a defensive and hostile response.  Understandably angered by such a campaign of “alternative facts”, it would be hard to blame those  journalists who might be lured from neutral reporting to thinly-disguised counterattacks.

This abandonment of the objective in favor of the subjective can come in two forms: content or tone which conveys an incredulous or combative attitude, and editorial choices which highlight every criticism, embarrassment and inconsistency, whether great or small, to the point where such reporting dominates the lion’s share of broadcast time and column space daily (and numbs the audience to the truly newsworthy stories, which become lost in the noise).  The more common and widespread this type of reporting might become, the more it would reinforce the perception that the news media is irreversibly biased, and thus can no longer be trusted.

My unsolicited advice: don’t take the bait.  The more persistent and routine the drumbeat of hostility implicit in coverage becomes, the more the credibility of journalists (already at an all-time national low) will be damaged.  I am not old enough to have witnessed first-hand the 1954 telecast on which Edward R. Murrow famously chastised the “junior senator from Wisconsin” (Joe McCarthy) for his shameful and disingenuous inquisition bent on destroying the reputations of many law-abiding Americans by branding them as Communists, in a cynical attempt to promote his own political ambitions.

jackson-walker-attorney-thumb-Allen-StacyMy unsolicited advice: don’t take the bait.  The more persistent and routine the drumbeat of hostility implicit in coverage becomes, the more the credibility of journalists (already at an all-time national low) will be damaged.

I am old enough, however, to have personally witnessed Walter Cronkite end his CBS evening newscast during the Tet Offensive in 1968 by departing from his scrupulously objective neutrality to proclaim his conclusion that stalemate, not victory, awaited America in the Vietnam War, and that the time for negotiating an honorable settlement had come.  What made Murrow’s and Cronkite’s subjective commentary so powerful and game-changing was its rarity; if they felt they could no longer adhere to their strict journalistic neutrality and refrain from speaking out, it must have been a very serious matter indeed.  The deep and abiding respect which the American people held for these two venerated journalists was earned over decades of reporting “just the facts,” and allowing their viewers and listeners to make up their own minds, without the “spin.”

These are extraordinary times in the political life of our republic, with extraordinary statements and actions by our elected representatives to match.  Doggedly sift the facts from the fiction and note when “facts” are uncorroborated, but then let those facts speak for themselves, and trust the audience to see them for what they are and draw their own conclusions.  They in turn will respect the press for respecting their common sense and sound judgment.  It’s what our democratic form of government—and the role of the Fourth Estate in that government—is all about.

[1] Interestingly, this famous aphorism is apocryphal, as actor Jack Webb never actually uttered those exact words, but nonetheless is forever linked to them; their wisdom is undiminished, however.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.