The Common Good

Just the Facts

Most of you are too young to remember Joe Friday, the tough inner-city police sergeant on the old television series Dragnet, which I still see sometimes in syndication. The no-nonsense cop was famous for a line he almost always used while conducting his investigations into a crime. To the many eyewitnesses he would interview, he would say, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Where is Joe Friday when you need him, like during this election campaign? Who is going to check the candidates on their positions, statements, speeches, and especially their attacks on each other, which are getting more vicious? And now, who will also check the media, especially the cable networks, who are increasingly just dividing along partisan political lines?

Where do we go to find the facts? Unfortunately, the media (especially the cable television networks and talk radio shows) are of less and less help -- especially in presenting "just the facts." I try to watch all the Sunday morning news shows some time during the day. Last Sunday's Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace had a long feature with one "analyst" to help us all understand what was happening in this election. The analyst? Karl Rove -- the only analyst. The great Republican architect has now become the great Republican analyst. Now how's that for "fair and balanced?" And if you want the political alternative, just turn on MSNBC, which is increasingly the ideological counterpoint and competitor with Fox. Then we go to CNN, where more and more of the commentators have become surrogates for one side or the other, saying predictable things along predictable party lines, with notable exceptions like David Gergen, who has worked in the White House for both Republican and Democratic Administrations and really does try to be fair and balanced.

Most of you are also too young to remember when evening news anchors were mostly eloquent narrators of the news. Now turning on television is like tuning into an ongoing partisan debate or, worse, seeing a succession of negative ads fighting back and forth in the name of commentary.

There are, however, a few segments on television, and more investigative stories in the newspapers, where journalists are trying to do the job of keeping the politicians honest. And there are respected fact checking places emerging on the Internet which appear to be developing respect on both sides of the aisle -- a very rare thing these days. One of them is FactCheck.org, whose spokespersons seem to be both fair and balanced. So far, I have seen them do helpful fact checking into the lies now being told in campaign ads and the overstretching of the truth in both campaigns. No, Obama did not support a bill in Illinois to teach sex education to kindergartners, but rather one to protect them from sexual predators. And no, McCain didn't say we should keep the war going in Iraq for a hundred years if necessary, just that we might have to support troops there that long as we do in other places.

Check the facts very carefully when the campaigns tell you what their opponent will do on taxes. Hopefully, there will be more of such places emerging that can be trusted. Send in the best choices for fact checking in your experience. Let's find some Joe Fridays out there -- "Just the facts, ma'am." Better yet, let's try to be Joe Fridays ourselves.

[Correction: Thanks to our fack-checking commenters, we have learned that the Dragnet detective's name was, in fact, Joe Friday (not Jack Friday), and the actor's name was Jack Webb. This correction is now reflected in the text.]

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