Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker: Precision only gets you so far.
September 4, 2012
I work on and off as a fact-checker at the most accurate magazine in America. I think so, at least. The checker assigned to this piece may come up with a list of competitors for that title—and in that case I’ll say that, having either been fact-checked by or been a fact-checker at most of them, she can count this fact as my own original reporting. My editor will probably agree and, if she pushes it, tell her that anyway “most accurate” is a qualitative evaluation, like “best defensive shortstop,” or “hottest freshman.” He won’t say, though it’ll be implicit, that the whole idea of The Oxford American assigning an essay about fact-checking works better if the guy they got to write it works as part of the best research department in the country—which makes me seem like an authority—and that it’d be a shame to lose the superlative when the magazine in question isn’t even going to be named. Superlatives, if you pay attention, are how magazines make stories seem worth reading, and not even the checkers at the most accurate magazine in America can fight off all the spurious ones.
A few months ago I wouldn’t have believed that anyone outside New York would care seven thousand words-worth about what I do there, but fact-checking has recently become a voguish topic among the New Yorker-reading and NPR-listening set. This probably has to be the result of two minor controversies—palatably packaged and sold in the manner of political “teachable moments”—that hit the middlebrow public this winter within a couple weeks of each other. The first came in February, when a smoothly edited and largely fabricated e-mail exchange between the essayist John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, his fact-checker at The Believer, was released as a book, The Lifespan of a Fact. D’Agata had written a good, but deeply unfactual, essay for Harper’s, which refused to run the piece. He then took it to The Believer, where Fingal—who was then, like most “fact-checkers” at small magazines, just an unpaid intern—was assigned to enumerate the factual issues. What followed, according to the publicity department at Norton, the book’s publisher, “was seven years of arguments and approximately one hundred pages of give and take, detailing a factual problem in nearly every one of D’Agata’s sentences, as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.” The book reproduces the “give and take,” formatted around the original essay, which really isn’t a bad piece of literary journalism. The publicity sheet goes on: “The Lifespan of a Fact tests the limits of art and challenges the role of the nonfiction writer. After experiencing D’Agata and Fingal debate the line between art and fact, witnessing the position of both the author and the fact-checker falter, the reader is left to ponder if the compulsion to obtain ‘The Truth’ is in fact plausible.” Sic, with regards to syntax.
The book, which is as convoluted and overblown as its marketing material, was reviewed on NPR and in the Times, Slate, the London Review of Books—Christ,everywhere, now that I’m looking—and has become by far D’Agata’s best-known work, which is probably fitting. He has been teaching at Iowa for many years and from there has become America’s most dogged partisan of the lyric essay, publishing anthologies but few long works, and generally making a lot of unsubstantiated claims about the genre’s history and potential.
The second came in mid-March, when the staff of the radio show This American Lifediscovered that the performer Mike Daisey had lied on-air about witnessing poor working conditions at Apple suppliers in China. They retracted the episode, and then, as a neat counterpoint to D’Agata’s defense of fabrication in nonfiction, turned the retraction into an entire seppuku-session of an episode—explaining how they discovered the fabrications, bringing Daisey back to cringe and account, and giving a thorough explanation of TAL’s fact-checking process. It became, in so much as any show on NPR can create one, an event, which I just cannot find a way to interpret generously. Newspapers and the various entertainment media loved the story. The whole editorial failure became an excuse for Ira Glass to talk up just how tough his show’s journalistic standards really are—the usual response from any burned publication—and TAL turned a fuck-up into a brilliant advertisement for itself.
I get paid an absolutely fair—generous, even—amount of money to sit at a desk in New York and hunt down bits of imprecision. Not to be cute, but imprecision might not even be a very precise way of explaining what I’m looking for. But I’m certainly not just looking for falsehoods. Smaller research departments, or magazines that rely on interns, generally don’t have the time, money, or will to do much beyond trying to figure out what’s wrong in the piece, but our approach is much more abstract. To give an example: A few weeks ago, a friend of mine—let’s call him Geoff—was assigned to check a mention of two television shows that contained a sentence describing them both depicting “a stunning amount of back-entry sex.” There’s really no easy way to check a sentence like that. The shows hadn’t aired yet, and we had already sent the promo DVDs back to the network. So you call the network’s publicity rep. This is what the office heard
Geoff: So we have this mention of these shows, yeah? And I just wanted to confirm some plot points with you.
Well, one in particular.
Well, so, there’s a lot of sex in both of them, right?
No, no, we’re not going to harp on it, of course, but our editors thought that maybe it was a significant enough factor in each of them to mention…to maybe even draw a link between the two….
And yeah, so what I was wondering is if there’s any particular position the sex usually happens in….
Like, from the back, front, side? Do you think that a lot of it comes from the back?
Cool, that’s helpful. Do you think that the percentage of rear penetration might seem disproportionate? Or even surprising? Really surprising? Say if I was just a normal, married guy in the Midwest
That does seem like a lot. And I guess I just want to make sure, because I’m not totally certain that we’re being totally clear here….
Yeah, I mean, when you say rear-entry sex—you mean entry from the rear, right? Not, um, into the rear? It’s a little confusing.
There’s a hierarchy of truth in this sentence. The first concern is, obviously, to make sure that both shows contain some back-entry sex. Any amount of any sexual act on television will be “stunning” to someone, somewhere. So there’s a sense in which you could just leave it at that. But our boss will want a justification for the adjective, and will go home, sit on his couch, and send us one-line e-mails demanding one until he gets it. So the amount of sex has to be a lot, and it has to be a lot in the context of the network on which the shows run, and at the same time it has to be a lot in the minds of the type of people who typically read the most accurate magazine in America. And so follows a discussion of who that type of person really is, and whether we can know how much would be stunning to them.
At that point it becomes all about precision, and you stop worrying about the truth-value of a sentence: Back-entry sex may mean something pretty clear, to a writer and editor, but can we be sure that it’ll be clear when read by even just a mildly prurient layman? It’s an important question, sort of—don’t we, as a magazine, have a responsibility not to send people off to watch shows in the hope of seeing sex in the rear when all they’re going to see is sex from the rear? And to avoid driving away anyone who would really be “stunned” by depictions of the former? We do, I think, and I would recommend that we change the wording. The editor would probably laugh at me, but it’d be worth a try. And thinking like that is what makes us good checkers.
And sometimes you win real victories. Not often, but it does happen. A few months ago, I was working on a story about Afghanistan, and the editor—hours before we sent the piece to the printer—inserted a bit of text under the headline—a dek, in magazine-speak—that contained the phrase “enemy combatant.” Which is an entirely political term devised under the Bush Administration to justify the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens. Political stances aside, it’s pure political jargon—and no kind of jargon deserves a place in front of a good piece of writing. The piece dealt very poignantly with some victims of arbitrary detention, and it occurred to me, just after our editor-in-chief had read and approved the piece, that we were not only using a phrase that had been invented as cover for an immoral practice, but that by using it we were undermining our own writer and the whole purpose he had in mind when he wrote the piece. Which was very good, and which was and still is the only thing I’d ever been proud to fact-check. These things happen, in fairness, to the best writers and editors. You work too quickly, and you pull dull phrases from the less active parts of the mind. But that’s why magazines have layers…