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Where have you gone Sergeant Joe Friday?

For those of you who don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the iconic television series Dragnet, you’re in for a treat. Maybe. For those of you who know and remember Dragnet, you’ll know immediately what we’re talking about.

The show – which ran through the 1950s and during the late 1960s, and ad infinitum in re-reruns – set standards for the many police and crime shows (and movies) that have been produced since then. The main character was Sergeant Joe Friday as played by Jack Webb. He became famous and has endured through the decades for his cardboard-like movements and direct monotone voice. (Really. Did he ever move his arms when he walked?)

Americana is richer today for the standard lines delivered in most every episode: “This is the city. Los Angeles, California.” “The story you are about to see is true.” “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

Then there is the recurring quotation that is our topic for today. Captured in Joe Friday’s immortal words, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Good advice that is in short supply in today’s media environment.

It was once thought that the job of journalists – be it print or electronic – was to report the facts; to tell their audiences precisely what happened; to be somewhat of a historical record of events. That was then.

Today, journalists skim over the facts – when they even bother to mention them at all. What’s more important to today’s journalists seems to be their interpretations of the facts. Their insights, their commentaries. In short, their opinions.

And this is true across the media landscape. From left to right; from blue to red; from the New York Times to Fox News. Screw the facts. They don’t need to be bogged down with the facts, not when there is a good story tell. Not when they can espouse their own versions of the reality of the news as they see it.

“Why confine editorializing to the opinion page when I’m expert enough to include the same opinions in my own stories?”

There is even a slogan which occasionally winds its way around journalistic circles: “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.” So true. Wrongheaded, but true.

In some cases the stories are relatively insignificant. Take for example reading four stories about the NCAA men’s basketball championship game from a couple of years ago and still not knowing the score. The score of the game was just a pesky fact that was getting reporter’s own analysis and commentary from coaches, players, fans and other assorted hangers-on. Why concern yourself with the facts about the event when they will just get in the way of someone’s arrogant, patronizing, condescending and self-absorbed commentary.

But what about when the stories are important? There is a never-ending lineup of stories, issues and events where some so-called reporter’s self-appointed insight, commentary, speculation, theory, conjecture, supposition, postulate, sentient or reaction take precedence over what actually happened. At this point, Sergeant Joe Friday would have interjected, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

The attitude seems to be that audience doesn’t need to know what actually happened, but they desperately need to have the reporter tell them what it all means and what the reporter thinks is going to happen next. Apparently the reporters think that audience is too dim-witted to be able to understand the facts and form their own opinions. Apparently today’s journalists think it’s their jobs to explain it. And they do it by talking down to their audiences. “Screw the facts. They need me to tell them what it all means.”

Where are you when we need you, Joe Friday?

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