Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that many publications now seem to have outsourced their fact-checking to the Web -- that is, to those readers who might know what's accurate.

I agree with his point that good fact-checking promotes honesty and carefulness, values even higher than accuracy.
Being fact-checked is not very fun. Good fact-checkers have a preternatural inclination toward pedantry, and sometimes will address you in a prosecutorial tone. That is their job and the adversarial tone is even more important than the actual facts they correct. In my experience, seeing your name on the cover of a magazine will take you far in the journey toward believing your own bullshit. It is human to do so, and fact-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts. The fact-checker (and the copy-editor too actually) is a dam against you embarrassing yourself, or worse, being so arrogant that don't even realize you've embarrassed yourself. Put differently, a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.
I had similar experiences many years ago when The New Yorker ran lengthy articles on my then-boss, Senator John Culver. "What's the color of the rug in his office," the fact-checker asked. I called a fellow staffer, who reported his opinion, "I'd call it cat-puke pink."  "Do you have Grant Wood paintings in your reception area?" "Well, I think they're charcoal drawings." "Do you wear rimless glasses?" "There's wire along the top rim but not the bottom."

More recently, I have written four books for reputable publishers and have endured almost no fact-checking. I'm glad they trust me, but I wish all publishers pushed back, if only randomly, to keep their authors on their toes.

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