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The Facts of Life

Fact-checking: It’s not an easy job, and it’s not without its faults. Which is why it wasn’t any feat of genius for Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair to crack the system.

Fact-checking is not among the most glamorous of professions. As far as the journalism world goes, it’s one step up from gofer: a mind-numbing, high-stress, low-pay task that morphs aspiring writers looking for a big break into literary trekkies obsessing over the proper spelling of ‘Suleimaniyah.’ Remember Bright Lights, Big City? Fact-checking at a Jay McInerney’d New Yorker is a big reason ‘You’—the book is written in the second person—goes off the deep end.

And yet in the back and forth of the Jayson Blair scandal, as well as the renewed interest in the Stephen Glass ‘saga,’ there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: A better fact-checking process would have prevented the debacles from occurring. The New York Times, like most big dailies, doesn’t have the resources or time to check every article, let alone every fact—but if it had, it would have caught Blair’s lies. And at The New Republic, where Glass fabricated most or all of 37 stories, the system had been constructed—and later compromised—by the ‘fabulist’ himself; had it been otherwise, pundits imply, Glass wouldn’t have gotten away with his fraud for so long. Or would he?

Granted, had someone re-reported Blair’s stories before they ran, they would have caught the lies about parts of the country he never visited, and subsequently described with gross inaccuracy, or people he never interviewed, and to whom he later attributed quotations never uttered. And it’s true that Glass succeeded because he identified weaknesses in TNR’s relatively robust (and now, consequently, much more so) fact-checking system. Glass even details how he fooled his editors—with, not surprisingly, a slight polish—in his recent, thinly veiled memoir The Fabulist:

I know exactly how Victoria fact checked the story, because I had played a large role in assessing the system. When Robert took over as editorial director, he asked me to review the magazine’s procedures. The Weekly’s system was considered a very good one, modeled on the industry standard, but he thought perhaps it could be even better. Unfortunately, in choosing me, Robert had unwittingly selected the worst possible person—someone with an incentive to undermine the system, not improve it. In the end, though, I mostly just left it alone; it was already susceptible to the unscrupulous.

Glass would like us to believe—in this passage and throughout the book—that he figured out how to school the system, and by implication that the system was somehow broken. But that last line only hints at a fact he conveniently avoids: Glass didn’t figure out weaknesses in a broken system, because the system wasn’t broken. It never worked in the first place—because when it comes to catching frauds, fact-checking is impotent.

Which is different from saying that fact-checking is worthless. On the contrary, it is one of the most important aspects of the editing process. As McInerney makes clear in Bright Lights, serious errors—and therefore serious threats to a magazine’s credibility—most often come not from malicious intent but from sheer laziness on the part of the author. Misspellings, faulty calculations, failure to attribute quotations—these things happen all the time, and they increase geometrically the more content a publication produces (i.e., more content doesn’t mean sufficiently more editors; there is probably a higher ratio of eyes to pages at TNR than at the Times; thus more errors are likely to get through). A well-built fact-checking system, though, will weed out these errors.

But when it comes to would-be frauds, fact-checking, like any defense, works best as a deterrent. But like most deterrents, the possibility of negative consequences is in fact quite low. And this goes for even the most robust systems—something that I, as a fact-checker at TNR and therefore an heir to the hopefully Glass-proof fact-checking system, should know. I wasn’t around in 1998, and I only know Glass through stories, but I feel his presence every day in the hours of fact-checking I do for each article I get assigned to review. In fact, more than a few first-time freelance writers, surprised at the thoroughness with which we examine each item, ask me whether we’re doing it on account of Glass. ‘Yes,’ I tell them, though it seems natural to me. It may not sound like a big deal to the general public, but whether or not there’s an ‘s’ at the end of ‘Sen. John Edwards’ is a big deal at a political magazine; it’s also the sort of detail that even the most attuned writers occasionally get wrong.

But it’s also clear to me that a writer could very easily cheat the system. Media reports, especially of late, haven’t been too kind to Glass, but most give him grudging respect for getting around our fact-checkers. Evil, they say, but just maybe an evil genius as well. That’s garbage. Glass’s stories were outrageous, but then his lies to cover up those stories—fake voice-mailboxes, fake websites—were outrageous as well. And unnecessarily so. Notes can be fabricated. Websites can be conveniently defunct. A fraud’s articles—because they’re lies—can be constructed to avoid inconvenient, contravening facts. And Glass would never have been caught had he played it safe, tactically interweaving truths into his fictions, items he could point to if his honesty were ever questioned. It’s only when the lies became extravagance, when not a single item in the story was true, that Glass got caught. Glass wasn’t a genius. He was a fool.

But he was a fool who, nevertheless, got around what was even then a fairly stringent system. A truly clever person intent on cheating could have gone on for much longer. One of the games I like to play—something that both helps improve my skills and makes me despair at ever making our system airtight—is to concoct scenarios in which a given ‘fact’ could be created. Going beyond fabricated notes, I imagine how companies can be faked, documents cooked, important sources rendered conveniently anonymous. It’s something akin to Leibniz’s ‘omnipotent demon,’ and my verdict, depressingly, is that I will almost always lose. What keeps me going, though, is the knowledge that our writers are neither omnipotent nor demonic. And it’s ultimately what every magazine—even ones with immaculate fact-checking systems—does as well each time it publishes an article. I doubt any writer I have ever worked with was lying, about even a minor point. But Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and a rogue’s gallery of other journalistic frauds assure me that not every author will always be as trustworthy.

And so whether Jayson Blair would have been caught earlier had the Times made even a token stab at fact-checking his articles is the wrong question. Of course it would have caught him, because Blair (despite what he may say in his book proposal) wasn’t schooling the system. He was just too lazy, and too far in over his head, to get the real facts. The better question, and the one that newspapers will have to reckon with, is whether a fact-checking system could ever stop a more clever Blair—and, ultimately, what that really means for the journalistic enterprise.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen