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Fact Check!

Along with the title, the device under this microscope is a Sandia Ion Trap. Photo by Oxford researchers

Brides magazine has a fact-checker. She does things like verify the cost of honeymoons and makes sure that Vera Wang did, in fact, design that dress, and compares the captions on winter flower bouquet slideshows with pictures in botany reference books. It would be terrible to mistake a eucalyptus pod for a mere pussy willow.

Many American magazines, from trashy celebrity weeklies to highbrow general-interest journals, have fact-checkers of some sort. I worked as one in 2008, when, with three other Harper’s interns, I fact-checked the magazine’s Index from beginning to end. Being the primary speaker of foreign languages in the intern cubicle, I ended up doing a lot of the international checking for the magazine. Percentage of Russians who say one goal of U.S. foreign policy is “the complete destruction of Russia”: 43. Number of Iraqi stray dogs that Operation Baghdad Pups has helped emigrate to the United States since 2003: 66.

I quickly learned that fact-checking is a predominantly American phenomenon. The French don’t do much of it, most Russian papers certainly don’t either, and even the Swiss — possibly the most exacting and precise people on the planet — do not make use of fact-checkers in quite the same way as Americans do. Yet their presses keep rolling, and their readers keep reading, and their brides still buy roses, if by another name. People even trust the press in Switzerland much more than they do in the U.S.: 46 percent of Swiss people said they had confidence in their newspapers and magazines in 2010. Among Americans, it was only 25 percent.

While fact-checking, at Harper’s and elsewhere on a freelance basis, I found that I spent nearly as much time explaining to people abroad what the hell a fact-checker is as finding the facts themselves. It was frequently assumed that my motive, qua checker, was not accuracy but malice — that I was out to get someone or to prove something wrong. The exchanges that took place between me and my sources sounded a lot like a description in Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, where Gopnik recounts a politician asking him if a fact-checker is like a “theory checker” — that is, if the young woman sitting in her Times Square cubicle would be grilling him for intellectual consistency. “There is a certainty … that ‘fact checking’ is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence,” Gopnik writes. “That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity: it would be naive to think otherwise.”

Gopnik’s politician and the confused foreigners on the other end of my line weren’t quite right. The existence of facts can easily be argued against in an epistemological context, but not often in a journalistic one. At Harper’s, at least, it really was about making sure the numbers — mostly other peoples’ numbers — added up. And frankly, all the fact-checkers I’ve ever known just didn’t want to be responsible for inaccuracies.

The people Gopnik cites were nevertheless onto something. A new culture of fact-checking is emerging in the U.S. — one that’s much more aggressive than the fact-checking of the past. Enabled by online data and information and encouraged by a polarized political discourse, facts — and especially a lack thereof — are being wielded like weapons. We don’t fact-check because we love facts. We fact-check because we hate liars.

***

Whither the fact-checker? For starters, there’s the pursuit of truth and knowledge and all else that is good in the world. This isn’t as squishy and idealistic as it sounds. I know many writers who were profoundly moved by the act of fact-checking, and I, too, found it to be a revelatory, if depressing, experience: In more than one case, I came across an entire news story based on a misinterpreted statistic. Still, it would be absurd to claim that the abundance of fact-checking in the U.S. can be explained because Americans as a people value accuracy more than the Japanese or the French. It would also be very hard to verify.

There is an under-explored financial reason for fact-checkers. Published errors not only look bad, but under certain circumstances, they can lead to lawsuits, which are very expensive indeed. I recently spoke to a media lawyer who told me The National Enquirer employs its law firm, Williams & Connolly (of Pentagon Papers fame), as their primary fact-checking operation. If they’re willing to spend that kind of money to carry out tasks more commonly relegated to interns and philosophy majors, consider the size of the potential litigation.

Then there’s the third reason: politics. Increasingly, for American readers, there are no mistakes, only covert ideologies. And out of necessity, TV networks, newspapers, and some magazines have bought into this mentality wholesale, serving up laborious platters of “fair and balanced” to consumers who lack the will and perhaps also the capacity to engage in any critical analysis of the information they are fed. They compete with one another on the terrain of “accuracy” and “neutrality.” And it is because the U.S. media is so obsessed with its own so-called objectivity that predatory checking — an offshoot of the traditional checking in newsrooms and magazines — has dominated the discourse. Checking is no longer just a link in the editorial sausage machine; it is an integral part of the public political discourse and a fixture in American popular culture. An army of professional and citizen fact-checkers have taken the process out of the newsroom and into the open.

This new wave of checkers — what the Times public editor famously called “vigilantes” — are different from the editors and aspiring writers at newspapers and magazines who silently bulletproof the stories their magazines publish (Peter Canby, the New Yorker’s head of fact checking, has acknowledged that “checkers are distinguished only by their mistakes.”)  The vigilantes work with a very different goal. They’re guerrillas; they live to pounce, to catch their enemies at their most vulnerable moments, and to parade their heads around on a stick, declaring smugly: untruth!

The patron saint of this new fact-checking scene is Craig Silverman, who runs a blog-turned-book, regrettheerror.com, and has a column on Poynter.org. Silverman calls fact-checking the “new American pastime” and is a serious and measured commentator: He appears genuinely concerned with setting the record straight, and writes at length about the importance of accuracy in journalism and the effect it has on public information. (He’s not above calling people “lying liars,” though.)

FactCheck.org, which is run by the Annenberg Center, is another somewhat serious operation that exhaustively nitpicks politicians’ statements. In the vein of FactCheck.org are ABC and washingtonpost.com’s online fact-checking operations. Finally, there’s PolitiFact and its notorious Truth-O-Meter, a digital graphic used as though truth can be measured with the same instrument you stick into a chicken to make sure it’s reliably free of salmonella. Late last year, Politifact was embroiled in a micro-scandal involving its “lie of the year.” The lie in question was a statement made by members of the Democratic party that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” This statement, said Politifact, was a complete exaggeration: Republicans merely wished to privatize the program.

Politifact did nothing to clarify the problem. In fact, it made things worse. Even after the site — a Pulitzer Prize winner! — decided that Democrats had been lying egregiously to the public for an entire year, people still disagreed, largely across ideological lines, about the semantic problem of whether or not ending Medicare as we currently know it could be described as ending it, period. As a result, Politifact began to be regarded as siding with Republicans. Brilliant.

Unsurprisingly, media innovators (are there ever not media innovators?) are trying to get past the problem of partisan checking. “Truth Teller,” one of the apps up for consideration in the Knight News Challenge hopes to “capture, analyze, and fact-check events and speeches as they happen.”

“One of the biggest complaints about political coverage is that it allows untruths to go unchecked,” reads the proposal. Truth Teller “instantly dices the rhetoric and calls out statements that do not reflect reality.” The app aims to go beyond the capabilities of humans by using an algorithm to parse political speech in real time and “determine semantic intent and context that would be compared to the news organizations’ data and Wikipedia.” This would result in a live video displaying the “truth level” of a speaker’s sentence, along with reactions from Twitter — an ultra-ultra-high-tech Truth-O-Meter that tweets.

Even if you value truth, it’s easy to be discouraged by reading these fact-checking blogs. Their motive is a sound one — ostensibly, they’re there to verify that published work and public statements are correct. But to what end? Can you convince a rabidly partisan public that the statements that have been hammered into their heads are false? If this sort of predatory fact-checking were actually effective for anything but sport, a great number of politicians would be out of business by now. Call it checking for the converted, or debunk-tainment: The tone of it is smug, not informative. This brandishing of “facts” is also a gateway to laziness. Why produce thoughtful and coherent critiques when you can just wield truth-bytes like weapons? Gopnik’s “theory checker” would serve a higher function in combating the lazy narratives of mainstream news than a hundred corrected factoids.

***

Until recently, the defensive/traditional and offensive/vigilante sorts of fact-checking rarely ventured onto one another’s turf. It wouldn’t make any sense for a checker at a magazine to draw attention to all the mistakes she found in a soon-to-be published article, and vigilantes just don’t do quiet. But in the past three months, we’ve seen a conflation of behind-the-scenes bulletproofing and dirty-laundry exhibitionism that speaks to a greater cultural shift in the way we think about truth.

The Lifespan of a Fact, a book “based on” (but, as it turns out, not accurately confined to) a series of exchanges between author John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal, came out last month. The book is an extended annotation of an essay that D’Agata wrote for the aptly named Believer magazine that deals loosely with the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas in 2002. Lifespan draws attention to the traditional fact-checker’s role in the publishing world. And through Fingal and D’Agata’s dialogue, it highlights the tension between the role of the fact-checker and the claims of the artist.

If the fact vigilantes suggest an outer limit to the revelatory powers of accuracy, D’Agata’s willful ignorance of such standards provides the opposite limit. Artist or no, facts do matter. As it turns out in Lifespan, D’Agata is indulgent, lazy, self-centered, and has no respect nor regard for his audience. When Fingal tells him as much, D’Agata’s excuse for everything is merely “art” — by which he means that the number nine sounds better than the number eight, ergo it’s okay to lie to readers about how many seconds a suicidal teenager spent falling to his death. Rather than taking his intern’s sound advice, D’Agata spends a great deal of energy explaining that he isn’t a journalist but an essayist and that this is enough to liberate him from the prosaic constraints of reality. D’Agata’s contortion of the facts in the name of Art is not unlike a political contortion of the facts in the name of ideology. The motive is the same: Mold history into what you consider a more fitting narrative. That’s not art. It’s revisionism.

The oddest thing about The Lifespan of a Fact is that D’Agata consented to and even participated in its publication. The book demonizes D’Agata as both a writer and a person (Fingal comes off as bratty, but not deluded), and in a sense, it was quite noble of D’Agata to subject himself to the onslaught of abuse from almost every writer, fact-checker, and critic in the country. But it’s especially fitting that a month later, D’Agata became a punchline in another scandal: Mike Daisey’s.

It was hard to ignore the Daisey fiasco, but for the sake of clarity, let us recap: Daisey, a monologist, gave a moving 45-minute performance about his experience at the Foxconn plant in China. He called it The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and broadcast it on This American Life to massive acclaim. During the monologue, Daisey described meeting underage workers, poisoned workers, maimed workers; he claimed to have gone to a meeting of a secret worker’s union in a Chinese Starbucks. People believed his monologue to be true, mostly because it was presented as such, and by that time, the Times and other investigations had confirmed that all these things were happening at some time or another. The problem was that Daisey hadn’t seen them himself. He was creating a composite to better draw attention to his cause.

Drama ensuedCorrection: This American Life is a WBEZ show, but it runs on NPR affiliate stations. The New Inquiry regrets the error. Also, The New Inquiry has no fact-checkers   This American Life dedicated an entire episode to essentially shaming him. The episode — entitled, “Retraction” — served as catharsis for NPR public radio, for Ira Glass, for anyone who’s ever been misled or who’s ever mistrusted the media. It is nothing less than excruciating. Daisey breathed through his mouth audibly and paused for long periods of time before answering Glass’s questions. Glass was his irritating, twee self, with an uncharacteristically stern edge. TAL could have reacted differently — making a straightforward statement about the inaccuracy of Daisey’s report, issuing a press release, banning him from the premises — but instead, This American Life theatrically burned Daisey at stake, as though to say: Don’t hate the lie — hate the liar.

It makes sense that NPR public radio took such a defensive approach. NPR has been under attack for its perceived liberal bias. But this kind of lashing out against inaccuracy, rather than dealing with it in a tasteful and direct manner, has become its own form of theater. NPR TAL had another good reason to own the mistake. They tried to fact-check Daisey before the piece came out and failed to catch errors — he had planned his lie too well, but ultimately not well enough. This has happened before, with amongst others, USA Today’s Jack Kelly, who managed to dupe his editors and third-party fact-checkers (to be fair, some of them were at Reader’s Digest) into buying made-up details of his sensational stories.

Many commentators have said that it’s impossible to fact check someone who’s determined enough to fabricate news in the first place, and with limited time and resources dedicated to the operation, they’re probably right. There will always be pathological liars in all parts of life who will get away with, and even make a living off of falsehoods, only to be exposed later on in a turn of karmic justice.

But the problem with NPR TAL-style retroactive fact checking is that it doesn’t focus on the facts themselves: it gives undue attention to liars or mistaken reporters, confirming all our cynicisms about the news while morally empowering whoever uncovered the error. In the end, we don’t learn about the facts. We learn about the people who don’t care about the facts. Facts become weapons, but the story rarely deepens. And worst of all, it won’t make the Daiseys and Kellys of the world disappear. We’ll just know who they are, where they went, and what they lied about.

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