Editors, Fact Checkers, and a Culture of Integrity

A culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.

Newsweek is fighting for its survival, so they brought in Tina Brown to generate interest. She has responded, as anyone who’s followed her career would have anticipated, by putting out one sensationalistic cover story after another. This week’s was a particular embarrassment, an argument for why President Obama shouldn’t be re-elected based on a series of fabrications, half-truths, and plain weak-ass nonsense.

Contacted to explain how such sloppy work made it through their editorial process, Newsweek told POLITICO that, well, they don’t have an editorial process.

Ta-Nehisi Coates attributes this decline to the economic woes besetting both Newsweek and journalism, generally, but notes that he’s been fortunate to work at places that maintain inordinately high standards.

When I arrived at The Atlantic in 2008, I was subjected to arguably the most thorough fact-checking procedure in all of popular publishing. That meant submitting an annotated version of the story with all sources cited, turning over all my notes, transcripts or audio, and the names and numbers of each of my sources, all of whom were called to confirm the veracity of my quotes. When I freelanced for The New Yorker, it was pretty much the same deal and the same level of scrutiny. (I think The New Yorker actually pioneered this particular version of fact-check.)

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 hand, plagiarism, and wholesale manufacture. 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.

Quite right. Alas, all of the pressures of modern publishing are in the opposite direction. Not only is proper fact-checking (and even copy-editing) expensive but it slows down the publication process in an era where rushing to be the first one to tweet news that everyone will soon have, anyway, is the norm. Further, truth is generally the enemy of the sensational and, well, sensational sells.

To be sure, enough of these embarrassments will permanently tarnish Newsweek‘s once-proud name among the types of people who obsessively follow Twitter or even read Ta-Nehesi Coates. Alas, they’re not Tina Brown’s target audience.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    I think your last sentence is key. Those interested in truth and integrity will stop buying Newsweek, but that is not her target audience. Those who want their biases confirmed, or their daily dose of outrage, cable TV and talk radio have confirmed that this is a large audience, will buy. It may even increase their circulation.

    Steve

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Unfortunately the damage is done. A bunch of low information voters are going to see this in their check-out lines and accept it as fact. All the debunking in the world isn’t going to help erase the stench left in the air. And yet next week this guy will be on TV somewhere pontificating as though he were some sort of authority on anything.
    Bottom line…if you have to rely on

    “…a series of fabrications, half-truths, and plain weak-ass nonsense…”

    to make your argument, then you don’t have much of an argument.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Contacted to explain how such sloppy work made it through their editorial process, Newsweek told POLITICO that, well, they don’t have an editorial process.

    Now, there is the Lame Stream Media…. What is really funny (funny sad, not funny haha) is that Politico doesn’t seem to have much of an editorial process either.

  4. Joe Carter says:

    ***When I arrived at The Atlantic in 2008, I was subjected to arguably the most thorough fact-checking procedure in all of popular publishing***

    That’s only half true. Has Coates writing on the web ever been fact-checked?

    If it goes in print, The Atlantic expects it to be factual. Yet if it goes on the web, it can be a “a series of fabrications, half-truths, and plain weak-ass nonsense” and it’s just fine (e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s entire tenure).

    Why the double standard? The time excuse doesn’t cut it. Just because a blogger posts several times a day and a newsweekly goes to print once a week is not excuse at all, at least not for a publication like The Atlantic that has a reputation for being factual.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Joe Carter: That’s a fair point, as most readers have no clue that a blog post is any different from a magazine article when it appears on the same site. But it’s a primordial tenet of blogging that there can be no editor to filter it through; otherwise, it’s not really a blog. (I run a blog at work that’s not really a blog by those standards.)

  6. Loviatar says:

    @C. Clavin:

    And yet next week this guy will be on TV somewhere pontificating as though he were some sort of authority on anything.

    Next Week?

    It didn’t even take that long, the blond talking head sitting in for O’Reilly on Faux did a whole 15 segment on the Newsweek cover story with everyone chiming in and chortling as they totally bought into the falsehoods. As far as the low-infos that Faux caters to, that story is now a fact and nothing you or anyone can say will change their minds.

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    This is the same Ferguson who wrote the U.S. has sufficient illegal immigrants, unemployed and convicts for an army large enough to conquer and civilize Asia, which it should immediately do. Harvard has given tenure to a fascist, a white supremacist and a booster for outright plutocracy where the non-wealthy are to be used to increase the wealth and power of societal elites.

  8. mattb says:

    @Joe Carter:

    If it goes in print, The Atlantic expects it to be factual. Yet if it goes on the web, it can be a “a series of fabrications, half-truths, and plain weak-ass nonsense” and it’s just fine (e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s entire tenure).

    This is partially true. As with OTB, Coates has embraced “just in time” fact checking via comment threads.

    So beyond his own commitment to trying to represent the most accurate information, he relies on his commenters to check his work. And, as with James, Doug, and Steven, he’s quite active in responding to critiques of his material, in real time, either within comment threads or in follow-up posts.

    Also, my understanding is, that the Atlantic is pretty good about following up on complaints about creative “facts” in unchecked blog posts. If a particular author develops a track record of sketchy material on their blog, they get a talking to (as a first step towards more direct action).

    As far a Sullivan (an team), to the degree fact checking happens, it’s also via his own audience (and fellow bloggers). However, that’s a case where we only get to see what the Dish team chooses to make public.

  9. Wayne says:

    The lame stream media have been full of fabrications, half-truths, and plain weak-ass nonsense. Unfortunately, it is usually done in order to promote the liberal agenda.

    But it only matters if it goes against your beliefs right?

  10. Socrates says:

    Is there any topic that wouldn’t compel Joe Carter to come in and say something nasty about Andrew Sullivan?

  11. MM says:

    @mattb: Yeah, but that’s not where Joe Carter was going with that. He’s just looking to discredit Coates statement, theerbuy7 casting doubt on both Coates’ understanding of fact checking and the Atlantic’s fact check of Ferguson itself.

  12. Joe Carter says:

    @Socrates: Um, probably not. But as long as serious people take Sullivan seriously it’s going to reveal they are not serious about journalistic standards. Like a lof of people, I’m tired of all the hand-wringing over fact-checking and journalistic integrity when Sullivan—whose standards don’t even meet the low bar for bloggers—continually gets a pass.

    Also, mentioning Sullivan in this context is quite relevant considering that he and Ferguson for the same media outlet. Sullivan’s articles are just as stupid an inaccurate as Ferguson’s was yet he gets away with it. Everyone simply shrugs off his idiocy as “Andrew being Andrew.”

  13. mattb says:

    @Wayne: Fixed it for you…

    The lame stream media @Wayne’s comments have been full of fabrications, half-truths, and plain weak-ass nonsense. Unfortunately, it is usually done in order to promote the liberal populist conservative agenda.

    But it only matters if it goes against your beliefs right?

  14. wr says:

    @Socrates: Is there any topic that wouldn’t compel Wayne to come in and whine about how conservatives are always victims?

  15. Mike says:

    @Wayne: [in monotone] Hello, my name is Wayne – I am republican talking point bot troll – just scan in a blog post and I will spit out the talking point. Danger Will Robinson, liberal lame stream media, danger.

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @ Loviatar…
    Yes…Ferguson has accomplished his propoganda dispersion goals.

  17. Dave says:

    @Joe Carter:

    Umm, citations please? (Note, I enjoy Sullivan’s website but don’t consider him much of a thinker. He’s way too driven by his emotions. However, I notice that conservatives only started calling him a liar after he dumped the Republican party.)

  18. UberMitch says:

    If mentioning Sullivan creates a distraction when discussing the Atlantic’s fact-checking standards for blogs, we can just use McCardle as an example instead. Just think of all the wildly incorrect garbage from her the Atlantic has had under its banner.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Can we take a moment to acknowledge James Joyner’s post against interest here? He’s a conservative. He’s not an Obama supporter. He’s a Republican. And he called out a sloppy hit job. You don’t see this every day folks. You don’t see this every blue moon.

    Kudos James. Possibly the last honest Republican.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    Now Obama is going head-to-head with his nemesis: a politician who believes more in content than in form, more in reform than in rhetoric. In the past days much has been written about Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate. I know, like, and admire Paul Ryan. For me, the point about him is simple. He is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! I had no idea Ferguson was such a comedian…and I’m still wondering what delusions cause him to actually believe that the President is “scared” of Ryan…

  21. al-Ameda says:

    @wr:

    @Socrates: Is there any topic that wouldn’t compel Wayne to come in and whine about how conservatives are always victims?

    There is nothing that can prevent conservatives from constantly complaining and whining that they are the single most victimized special interest group in America today.

  22. Andre Kenji says:

    I find Andrew Sullivan to be overestimated, and I have wrote that several times here. But he writes a blog, and a blog has very different editorial standards than a print article. Writing for a blog is very, very different because you are writing to give a immediate answer to some event that is happening now. Yes, it´s very difficult, but it´s different than a print cover article for a magazine.

    The problem is that a weekly newsmagazine is not a blog, and Tina Brown transfomed Newsweek in a blog that is printed every week. You have Sullivan in one week, Ferguson in the other. I think that´s the point that Coates is complaining about.

  23. Rob in CT says:

    Sullivan has a lot of poor marks on his record (the “fifth column” thing, gushy boosterism of Bush [now replaced by similar feelings for Obama], the bizarre Trig obsession… and more). But there really isn’t any comparison to Ferguson, who is an unredeemable PoS.

    Good point by UberMitch about “Jane Galt” McCardle.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    Most of the old-time reporters, the ones who would check and double-check their facts, were let loose or fired by the media companies because of being too expensive. It was much easier (and cheaper) to hire the young hack writer and let them loose with the unverified background sources, “some people say…” with a smidgen of :”both sides do it” as a cherry on top. The public doesn’t want truth; it wants pablum that confirms their own beliefs.