Saturday, February 7, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am. (The correct ones, that is.)

John McPhee, long one of the brightest stars in the New Yorker's firmament, has a reputation for not only writing it right but also getting it right. His long, complex and astonishingly readable articles, which usually make it into book form, are almost always factually impeccable. You just don't catch this guy making mistakes.

That is not entirely because of his own considerable diligence. In the current (February 9 & 16, 2009) issue of the New Yorker, he sings a lovely paean to the doughty fact-checkers of the magazine, editors who closely examine every "a," "and" and "the" of every manuscript that comes under their scrutiny. They spend many hours, even weeks, checking every fact in every article that goes into the magazine. Upon them lies the New Yorker's vaunted credibility.

One example: In a 2005 piece on coal trains, McPhee wrote that the extremely long air brake system of a train "was like the air sac of an American eel."

The New Yorker fact-checkers phoned a bunch of ichthyologists and discovered that the eel's air sac actually is shorter than that of most ordinary fish. The simile just would not work. A new one was needed.

McPhee called a noted ichthyologist he knew, but the fellow just could not come up with a species having a long enough air sac. In desperation the scientist called Harvard, which came through. "The train's very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish."

McPhee takes great pride in getting his facts right before submitting an article, but knows the fact-checkers will (almost!) always save his ass if he's wrong. And so he sometimes submits a piece containing a few "TKs" ("TK" is journalese for "to come"), denoting mostly minor facts, usually names or numbers, he hasn't yet checked thoroughly but knows the professionals will, saving time for everybody.

I used to be a fact-checker of sorts, as a copy editor for the old Chicago Daily News and as a book editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. The chief difference, however, lay in the deadlines. When I was working, newspaper copy editors had only minutes, let alone hours or days or weeks, to check the accuracy of the stories they edited. Time is of the essence in creating the first draft of history.

These days, overworked newspaper copy editors barely have a chance to "railroad" the copy they edit into print. They've also got to design pages and scare up art and write captions as well as headlines. There's just no time to check more than a fact or two in this era of downsized newspaper staffs.

As we move from daily print journalism to instant digital news, the problem grows more acute. Getting it online first trumps getting it online right.

And so it falls upon the reporter and his first line of defense, the city desk, to fix the facts before the stories are shoveled at the copy editor/page designers. It's a miracle that more mistakes aren't made.

Is it any wonder that we newsies are jealous of magazine writers who enjoy the luxury of having their stuff fact-checked? (Not all magazines employ fact checkers. Besides the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly does, and McPhee also cites Time and the National Geographic.)

Book publishers don't do fact-checking, which helps explain why so much bullshit gets enshrined between covers. The authors are responsible for that job. On the rare occasion that the New Yorker rejects a McPhee piece and he still gets it out as a book, he has to do all his own fact-checking. This, McPhee writes, risks "analogy with the attorney who defends himself and has a fool for a client."

It's happened to me, too. Every now and then I get a letter from a reader of one of my novels pointing out a factual error. So far the mistakes have been minor, but I live in dread of getting caught the way the New Yorker did when it described a reader in a nursing home as "the late" although he was very much alive. He wrote in and complained.

Quickly, McPhee writes, the New Yorker got into print a note regretting the error. Unfortunately, during the weekend while the magazine was going to press, the formerly late reader died, compounding the magazine's original mistake.

(You need a subscription to the New Yorker (or a newsstand copy) to read the entire piece, but an abstract of the article is here.)

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