March 14, 2005
At the first magazine I ever worked for, the managing editor had a ritual of giving all newly hired interns and fact checkers a copy of a 1988 New Republic article called “Are You Completely Bald?” The three-page piece, by Ari Posner and a young, pre-controversy Richard Blow, is a funny, anecdote-filled overview of the subculture of fact checking at The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and other elite New York magazines. I’ve never read an article that captures the fact checker’s duties and mindset as well as Posner and Blow’s piece does. The peg for the story seems partly to have been the recent film version of Bright Lights, Big City, whose protagonist was a fact checker played by Michael J. Fox.
After I left that first magazine and eventually began working in jobs where I needed to hire interns and fact checkers myself, I continued the ritual of giving out copies of this article. At one point I inadvertently gave away my last photocopy and had to replace it by xeroxing it off of microfilm at the New York Public Library.
The article doesn’t appear to be on the New Republic website, and I don’t think it’s on Nexis, either. So I’ll post some of it. (Update, 2018: You can download a PDF of the entire article here.) I’ll leave it to others to comment on the exquisite irony of a few of the sentences here. I’m posting this partly because I think the Michael J. Fox anecdote is hilarious. This is roughly the first 20 percent of the piece.
[The New Republic, September 26, 1988]
ARE YOU COMPLETELY BALD?
Adventures in fact checking.
By Richard Blow and Ari Posner
When Moses climbed Mt. Everest to receive the Eleven Commandments, he didn’t submit them to “fact checkers” before delivering them to the Buddhists waiting below after their 60-year trek through the Mojave Desert. But “fact-checking”—a stage in the editorial process where someone attempts independent confirmation of every “fact” in an author’s manuscript before its publication—is an established and much-cherished institution of American journalism. Or at least some corners of American journalism, primarily magazines. For practical deadline reasons, newspapers don’t have independent “fact checkers,” relying instead on their reporters and editors to get things right. Nor do book publishers usually make any effort to reconfirm the facts in manuscripts they publish. Yet oddly, newspapers and books are the main sources fact checkers use to “check” the facts they approve for publication.
If we sound a bit defensive on this point, it’s because The New Republic has no fact checkers either. This is partly for deadline reasons, partly for financial reasons, and partly because of philosophical doubts about whether devoting limited resources to catching the kinds of things fact checking catches is the best way to serve the larger cause of printing the truth. TNR does make mistakes, often embarrassing ones. A while back, for example, we called the victim of New York’s famous “preppy murder” Jessica Levin, not Jennifer. A few weeks ago we gave one of our own authors a middle initial he does not have.
But even regarding accuracy of this narrowest and most arid sort, it’s not our impression that we do much worse than other publications that invest large chunks of money and prestige in fact checking. Even the New Yorker, the Vatican of fact checking, is prone to trivial errors. Writer David Owen, a former fact checker himself, says that a one-paragraph review of his book High School in the New Yorker had him graduating from college in the wrong year and mislocated the school that was the book’s subject.
What TNR does miss out on, undeniably, is the peculiar world of fact checking, a culture full of lore and legend. This culture recently got some publicity in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City and the movie that was made from it starring Michael J. Fox. Fox prepared for the role by working for a week as a fact checker at Esquire. According to Larkin Warren, Esquire‘s head of research, Fox was assigned to check a recipe for blackberry pie. He called a Manhattan bakery and read someone the recipe. “The baker got very irate and said, ‘Young man, I don’t know who the hell you are, but that pie is going to explode if you don’t poke some holes in the top.’” Fox ran into Warren’s office “screaming that he’d saved America.”
Fox was experiencing the thrill of fact checkers’ high, a high that has no necessary correlation to the importance of the fact. In a way, the more obscure the fact the bigger the rush. Dan Shaw, an editor and former fact checker at New York magazine, remembers one article in which an author described something as sounding like “the ball bearings in a can of Krylon spray paint.” To see if there really were ball bearings in Krylon cans, Shaw tracked down the manufacturer, called the company, fought through layers of somewhat incredulous bureaucracy, and was finally told that after a half century of using ball bearings, the company had recently switched to marbles. The effort went for naught when the writer told Shaw that he preferred to keep his original simile, and was allowed to keep it. But Shaw knew that he had done his job.