Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Short History of Journalism and the Modern Fact (An Imaginary Book)

I was just fuming a bit over an article from the July 3, 2010 Economist, "The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit." Because I've been reporting in this subject for the last nine months, I saw immediately the major factual errors in the piece, which I'll write about elsewhere. But the piece got me to wondering about fact checking. Evidently, The Economist either doesn't do any or does it terribly at times. What other publications don't fact check? I learned fact checking in the early 1990s, as an intern at The Nation. At the time, The Nation's rival, The New Republic, didn't fact check. (Or so we were told; I didn't check that fact.) I know they do now because they fact checked me, vigorously and well, when I wrote for them. When did magazines begin fact checking? Here's my proposal for a book that has probably already been written (again, I didn't check): A Short History of Journalism and the Modern Fact. If it hasn't been written, and you're interested in the subject, please write it and send me a copy.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post this morning, I've learned a few things. Apparently, very few British publications fact check. And The Economist is famous within magazine publishing for not fact checking. Worst of all, I'm told by a reliable source (you'll have to trust me!), are their statistics. On another front, I got the answer to a question that's bothered me ever since Ann Coulter misrepresented me in her book Godless: How do hacks like that get away with it? I don't mean, How do they persuade people? Rather, how do they avoid getting sued until they're in sack clothes? Why do their publishers stand by such crap? The answer, apparently, is publishers usually don't -- you can put a lot of garbage in a book, but if you do, the publisher says you're on your own. For people like Coulter, that's probably fine, since A) she's fabulously wealthy; B) lawsuits generate sales for people like her; C) people don't usually sue. I didn't sue Ann Coulter, and it's never crossed my mind to sue any of the online hacks who've said I use the blood Christian babies and kittens to bake my matzoh.

So it's up to the author. I paid a team of fact checkers to check my book before it went to legal review, instructing them to think of themselves as prosecutors and every sentence as guilty until proven innocent. Then the book, notes and all, went through legal review. That doesn't catch facts, but it does prevent any characterizations you can't back up. The lawyer's concern, of course, is defending the publisher, not me. Then again, I'm an afterthought to any lawsuit that's in earnest, since I have no real assets. "You sue the publisher for money," the lawyer told me. "You sue the author for fun." All the more reason to do everything she says.