Joe Friday, the archetypal police detective made famous in the 1950 police procedural Dragnet, will forever be remembered by the catchphrase—just the facts, ma’am. It’s an easy enough proposition—or so it seems.

In the world of politics, the request for the facts is as often a prelude to prevarication as it is an entrée to enlightenment. What are facts, anyway?

If many of the day’s politicians are to be believed, facts are anything they say they are—truth need not apply. Facts have been very much in the news since another catchphrase was coined. The moneyer this time was Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. She gave every politician the gift that keeps on giving—the infamous and capacious term alternative fact. It’s not as if politicians haven’t played fast and loose with the truth since…well, since politicians started moving their lips.

Yet, somehow, Kellyanne’s euphemism for the word(s) lie [and truth] jolted the often-jaded community of Capitol City journalists in a way few other phrases have. Is the utter absurdity of the term the reason it’s been mocked so mercilessly?

Perhaps it’s how former President Trump has wielded his saber of lies against politicians of every ilk and even the very foundation of the Republic for which we all stand. Maybe it’s the Mouth of Manhattan’s forcing presumably sane, sensible, and ethical people wanting his praise to swallow their dignity and vouchsafe the truth of so easily a disprovable alternative fact as his winning the 2020 presidential election.

Like many media outlets, the Washington Post (WaPo) routinely checks the truth of statements made by politicians, patricians, and partisans and compares them to verifiable facts. In some cases, the truth is found in peer-reviewed scientific studies; in other instances, the paper pulls the record, e.g., a court transcript. WaPo’s award-winning Fact Checker then awards Pinocchios on a sliding scale of 0 to 4, with 4 being the domain of the blackest lies of all.

Hands down, the holder of the most Woodies—short for the wooden boy awards—is former president Trump. However, the ex-president is hardly the only one spouting alternative facts when referring to previous elections they’ve won or lost.

Over the last few weeks, WaPo has awarded four Pinocchios to Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) for claiming that “Republicans plan to end Social Security and Medicare if they take back the Senate.” Bollocks!

The Fact Checker, who goes by Glenn Kessler when not sniffing out facts[i], called out Stacy Abrams for her claiming she won the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race against the current governor Brian Kemp (R). According to Kessler, one of the first times Abrams made the claim was on “The View” in words not much different from the former president’s:

“We had this little election back in 2018. And despite the final tally…the inauguration, and the situation we find ourselves in, I do have one very affirmative statement to make. We won.”

WaPo recently called out the Lincoln Project, a political action committee of mostly establishment Republicans affronted by Trump and his minions, over an ad that read:

“Trump told you the election was stolen, ripped you off, to sucker you, to take your hard-earned money and shovel it into his pockets. He spent it on himself, not to take back the White House. It was the biggest scam in political history. Every dollar you sent him paid to keep his shady business empire and lavish lifestyle going.” (Emphasis added)

Where do they get this stuff? Kessler awarded the claim four Pinocchios. However, it should be noted, that some of Trump’s legal fees are being paid by one or the other of his two political action committees, i.e., the Save America PAC or Make America Great Again PAC.

The ad aired on cable in Bedminster, NJ—home to one of the ex-president’s golf clubs and one of his many homes away from Mar-a-Lago. The claim garnered “at least 41,000 retweets and more than 109,000 likes.”

Truth is a measure—like an inch, ounce, mile, and dollar. Facts aren’t just nice to have; they’re critical to the conduct of business, scientific research, engineering, architectural studies, and, dare I say, policymaking. Some form of standardization is crucial if the world isn’t to descend into complete chaos.

The nation’s founders understood the indispensable role of weights and measures. It’s why they gave the power to standardize them to the federal government. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power to:

  • To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes. (Emphasis added)

Part of the Constitution’s commerce clause calls out the power of Congress to:

  • To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures. (Emphasis added)

In these last weeks leading up to the November midterms, hardly a day goes by without a media story about the reticence or outright refusal of candidates to commit to accepting the outcome of their races should they lose—absent any real evidence suggesting a steal.

Facts are colorblind—or, at least, they should be. Can the temperature at which water boils be different for a Republican than a Democrat, all other things being equal?

If Joe in Michigan can say it’s his constitutional right not to wear a mask, can his 85 year old grandmother in Florida not make a similar claim that it’s her right to run naked—well, not run exactly—through the streets of Century Village waiving her Trump banner?

Aren’t they both just expressing themselves? Isn’t free speech a right guaranteed by the US Constitution? Why can’t I yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater? If I say the boiling point of water is 31 degrees Fahrenheit and you say it’s 212 degrees, we can’t both be right.

At some point, a neutral arbiter of the facts must be appointed to ferret out fact from fancy. More importantly, the parties must be willing to accept the duly arrived at conclusions of the arbiter if debates aren’t just to be an endless series of fine whines.

It’s not as if there aren’t well-established arbiters out there. It is, however, that the disingenuous among us refuse to take anyone’s word other than their own or that of their tribal leader.

Mr. Trump asks for the appointment of a special master to review the documents seized by the FBI in the Mar-a-Lago raid, only to dispute the findings because they don’t support his lies. Oops, I mean conform to his alternative facts.

Journalists must stop asking candidates if they will accept the outcome of their races should they lose. The critical question is are you willing to take anyone’s word other than your own? If not, then Mr. Trump is right. The system is rigged.

And, finally, a note about what Joe Friday had asked of potential witnesses. The catchphrase, just the facts, ma’am, was never said by Detective Joe. The actual quote was, “all we want are the facts, ma’am.” And that’s a fact, Jack.

Lead image by Walt Disney-Original Trailer (1940), Public Domain

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[i] In an award-winning journalism career spanning nearly four decades, Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street. He was The Washington Post’s Chief State Department reporter for nine years, traveling around the world with three different Secretaries of State. Before that, he covered tax and budget policy for The Washington Post and also served as the newspaper’s national business editor. He has been editor and chief writer of The Fact Checker since 2011.