Blog No. 10: Just the Facts Ma’am

WASHINGTON, DC --- Sgt. Joe Friday, the acclaimed “straight cop” that Jack Webb made famous in his radio and later TV series “Dragnet,” would tell witnesses and victims alike, “just the facts Ma’am.” This level of no-spin, just the factual information necessary to present a story, was something that was ingrained in every student when I went to journalism school.

News was supposed to be presented in a factual, un-opinionated way. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite would intone each night on CBS.

No slant, no rant. Only cold, hard, sustainable, verifiable, multi-sourced facts.

When I took the Associated Press test in 1978 to try to gain employment, they didn’t want opinions, they just wanted facts. And spelling. Spelling was important to the AP. Get it fast, and get it right. And get it before the UPI, that’s what they told me.

Got data? Have pictures to corroborate your story? Now you’ve got a story.

Opinions were supposed to be for Editorial Page writers, guest columnists, movie critics and Food Editors.

Got only one source for your story? Then it’s not a story. Get at least a corroborating source, even better, two, and then we’ll edit the copy, Mike Lednovich, my editor at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel said.

News Lednovich said, was, well, news; and opinions were opinions. “Just get the facts, and get ‘em right, and get ‘em fast,” he said. “We’ll help you make them pretty when you get back to the newsroom.”

And he’d call your source, if he thought you were omitting something. Ledno took no prisoners. And he had no fear, except getting a story wrong.

Facts and Opinions, I was taught, are two distinct and different things.

But apparently not anymore in the new “Gilded Age of Trump.”

I’m not exactly sure what an Alternative Fact is, or Alt Facts, as they’re now being called here in the nation’s capital. Is it a half fact? Or a quarter fact? Or is it what many here in town are laughingly calling just plan good old horse manure?

And believe me, there’s been plenty of manure being spread throughout this town, pretty much since Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton cut their deal, and made sure the swamp north of Mt. Vernon would eventually become Washington, DC. But, we digress.

Anyway, here’s 20 Alternative Facts we’ve heard so far from our new president and his team in the last 10 days:

  1. There were 1.5 million people at the inauguration.

  2. It was the largest crowd ever at a presidential inauguration.

  3. I'm an intellectual; believe me, I’m really, really smart.

  4. Mexico will pay to build the wall. Guaranteed.

  5. We will place a 35% tariff on importing products made by American companies abroad.

  6. I will find a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia who is even smarter and better.

  7. Lock her up; Hillary is a crook.

  8. The press are shameful liars.

  9. The election was rigged.

  10. Obama is not really an American.

  11. Obama started ISIS.

  12. I'm being audited, so I can't release my taxes.

  13. I'm a conservationist. I love nature.

  14. We need more energy, more oil, more nuclear power.

  15. I’m especially for clean burning coal.

  16. Radical Islamic terrorism will be wiped off the face of the earth.

  17. Dow 20,000? It's because of Trump. It’s the Trump rally.

  18. I will restore good, high paying jobs to the middle class.

  19. Our schools are a national disgrace.

  20. I am exempt from conflict of interest laws as your president.

Now some of this is fact. Some of this is opinion. Some of this is spin.

And some of this is just plain malarkey.

I’ll leave you to decide which is which.

Here’s what is probably more pertinent: Please get it right Mr. President. Your staff is not doing you a service by allowing Alt Facts to be utilized on your behalf.

The new press secretary is getting hit pretty hard this week. Mr. Spicer deserves a little more time before he is barbequed and cast aside by the National Press Corp. Kellyanne Conway, who in many instances during the campaign, was a breath of fresh air amid a cloud of giant spin machine, stepped on it badly with Chuck Todd when she said Alternative Facts on Meet the Press on Sunday.

American Presidential Press Secretaries, from Steve Early (the first and longest serving one, by the way, under FDR) to Josh Earnest, have always spun for their boss. It’s their job to make the president look good. You can do this by offering the facts, or omitting other facts, so as to contain a damaging bit of news. Offering your views and opinions? Of course you are. But make sure everybody understands that.

Clearly, there’s a difference between views and facts.

And they want to spin in such a way so clients appear in the best possible light.

But, I oversimplify. Standing up there, at that podium, day-in and day-out, getting pounded by the White House Press Corp, is as tough a job in government as there is.

Having been the “corporate spokesperson” for four different companies, over four different decades, I can also tell you that for me it was a rush. It was like standing on third base in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs in a tied game; it was tense, trying, with your adrenalin running at full tilt.

You’ve got to pay attention. The game could be on the line.

And, most of all, you must stay cool, keep your calm, and never let them see you sweat.

You’ve got to act, well, like Sgt. Joe Friday.

So, I’m rooting for Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and even President Trump, to start acting like the adults they are. To comport themselves with the dignity and integrity the American public, indeed, the world requires.

My dad called me one day at the Tampa Tribune, when I was just getting started as a newspaper writer, in 1977.

“I read your piece in the paper today,” said Dad.

“Oh, glad to hear it,” I replied. “Did you like it?”

He said: “yes, I did. But I have one question.

“Is it true?” my father asked.

“It is,” I said.

“Good, because my name is on it, too. Just wanted you to know that,” Dad said, and then he hung up the phone.

Integrity is something you have to earn.

To the winners go the spoils, is an old adage.

Here’s another one: You have to earn people’s respect every day.

That is not an alternative fact.

It is not an opinion.

It is just a fact.

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