TNR, the NYT and the Myth of the Fact-Checker

I never thought The New Republic was anti-union, but its editor Franklin Foer seems to be auditioning for a Writers Guild strike scab job as a late night comedy writer. How else to explain his telling us that it took four and a half months for his magazine to determine his Iraq correspondent Scott Beauchamp was a liar?

Four and a half months? After having been informed Beauchamp was married to his fact-checker? Yes, I know that's not proof in and of itself, but it's a red flag the size of Brooklyn.

You would think Foer would have had the allegations checked out in a couple of weeks at most, given the embarrassment to himself and his publication. (In fact, I wouldn't doubt he did just that, but was hoping against hope for some kind of bail out. Hence the interminable delay in coming clean.)

Anyway, I could go on to bash Foer yet again and try to deconstruct his convoluted apologia pro vita TNR, but I confess it was so long I only skimmed it, especially after I read that it took the editor until page fourteen finally to admit what we all already knew. In the post-Rather epoch, it's surprising folks like Foer don't have the common sense to get in front of problems like this with a quick mea culpa and put an end to things instantly, but hey, I guess there's no end to human defensiveness.

The larger issue involved, however, is fact-checking in general. It is the linchpin on which mainstream media bases its superiority over blogs and other new online media and has considerable economic ramifications: whom readers trust equals whom advertisers will ultimately invest in. All of this is fluid.

Institutions like the New York Times have an evident vested interest and their editor Bill Keller laid out their case the other day at a lecture in the UK:

First: We believe in a journalism of verification rather than assertion, meaning we put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Now, of course, newspapers are written and edited by humans. We get things wrong. The history of our craft is tarnished down the centuries by episodes of partisanship, gullibility, and blind ignorance on the part of major news organisations. (My own paper pretty much decided to overlook the Holocaust as it was happening.) And so there is a corollary to this first principle: when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.

At the Times, we are obsessive about owning up to our mistakes, from the petty to the egregious.

My personal experience of mainstream media fact-checking, New York Times included, has not tracked with Keller's hyperbolic declaration. And as someone whose age has (gasp!) a "6" in front of it, I have had, alas, decades of fact-checking - at major publishers, movie studios, newspapers, magazines, etc., the vast majority of it long before the blogging era.

In short, mainstream media doesn't do much. Essays I did for The New York Times Book Review were not fact-checked at all (though they did copy edit, luckily for me). Over at the Los Angeles Times, an amusing example is an article I did on a Siberian film festival at which I was a juror. After I submitted it, the LAT fact-checker called and asked, "Did this all happen?" "Yes," I said. "Thank you," she said and hung up. So much for mainstream media fact-checking.

Admittedly, most of what I wrote for newspapers and magazines was in the "cultural" realm, not front-page news, but I wonder about the extent of fact-checking in that seemingly more important area as well. Simple economics makes it dicey. In a fast-moving environment, or even not, the cost of thorough fact-checking is prohibitive, perhaps even to the level of impossibility. What company with a lot of editorial content could afford a sufficient number of qualified fact-checkers and survive?

The difficulties inherent in this became clearer to me when I began to take responsibility at the editorial end of Pajamas Media. You want to fact-check but, if you're honest, you know you can't always do so to the degree necessary. You do your best to corroborate stories, but for the most part in the end you "trust your troops" -- meaning the reporters (or bloggers) in the field who brought you the material - or you don't.

We have had problems with this. One night, while I was on duty, we reported the death of Ayatollah Khamenei (based on two sources inside Tehran). Obviously, we were wrong. It was embarrassing, even though, unlike The New Republic, within an hour we were retracting the story and publishing contradicting accounts.

So what's the solution? Like Keller, most would prefer a journalism of "verification" over "assertion," but how do we achieve it?

Being honest about biases is part of it, but, in addition, blogging has been shown to be tremendously useful - I could almost say revolutionary - in fact-checking.

While publications can't afford them, a blog with ten thousand daily readers has an astonishing number of potential fact-checkers, many of them with specific domain knowledge in the particular area of the post or article, again something the MSM can't begin to afford. I have experienced this on my personal blog where I have been fact-checked vastly more often than in any other medium - and almost always correctly. Indeed, without admitting such, mainstream media have been using blogs for their fact-checking for some time.

Now as some blogs grow and merge into something different - the new media companies of the future - it is important to maintain the responsiveness... and honesty... inherent in this interactive fact-checking.

Mainstream outlets would like to believe these new companies are not emerging. Keller bragged in his lecture about the power of The Times:

As it happens, newspapers have at least two important assets that none of the digital newcomers even pretend to match. One is that we deploy worldwide a corps of trained, skilled reporters to witness events and help our readers understand them. This work is expensive, laborious, sometimes unpopular, and occasionally perilous.

Well, bully. But Mr. Keller apparently did not fact-check. Our little Pajamas Media already has correspondents in nearly fifty countries. They may not all be of the "quality" of The New York Times, but we're trying our best to improve. Who knows? Maybe we'll get there some day.

Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist and blogger, and the CEO of Pajamas Media.