Truth or Consequences No point is too fine, no nit too picky to escape their notice: Fact-checkers are a publication's last chance to get it right.

June 15, 1998|By M. DION THOMPSON | M. DION THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

They're the conscience of Vanity Fair; at Forbes they take apart a writer's copy line by line; and at Smithsonian they'll spend two weeks sifting through a writer's file until they're sure everything checks out.

They are fact-checkers, the truth squad of the magazine world.

"Speaking as an editor, fact-checkers are often the bane of my existence because they are so thorough," says George Hodgman, deputy editor of Vanity Fair.

Don't tell them profits are up by one-third, if profits are really up 38 percent; don't say a company has 25,000 employees when it really has 24,473. And, don't ever say a fact came from another magazine or newspaper.

"We're not allowed to read it in the New York Times and use it," says Kasia Moreno, chief of reporters at Forbes, the bi-weekly business magazine. "Other papers and magazines are not a source for us. I'm not singling out the New York Times, but what if they made a mistake."

Fact-checkers inhabit their own place in the magazine hierarchy. Writers get the glory and awards that come with the well-told tale. Editors stand on the Olympian heights, directing their publications like the captains of mighty ships. Fact-checkers are like dogged insurance company actuaries, toiling over every little detail.

The research department is the backbone of this magazine," says Hodgman. "It is the central nervous system. The fact-checkers save us every month, at least from embarrassment."

Every time a publication hits the newsstand, it puts its reputation on the line. Errors, from egregious to minor, are maddening reminders that even the best system can fail. Yet, rarely is a magazine's good name damaged as happened last month at the New Republic.

On May 18, the magazine published "Hack Heaven," a behind-the-scene look at the dealings between computer hackers and companies they threaten. The story, written by associate editor Stephen Glass, turned out to be bogus. Glass, a rising star at the weekly, used forged notes, a phony Web site, phone lines and other deceptions to get around the magazine's fact-checkers.

His editors then checked his story about a monthly meeting of the Commission to Restore the Presidency to Greatness. It, too, was false. Before it was all over, Glass, 25, was fired, and other publications were scrambling to review what he had written for them. Editors of the New Republic wrote an apology and explanation in the June 1 issue.

People in the magazine world paused and took notice. Editors wondered: "Could it happen here?" People recalled the shame that fell on the Washington Post when Janet Cooke's 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning account of an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be fiction.

Glass had made a career of deception at the New Republic. His fall was a spectacular, embarrassing disaster for himself and the magazine that employed him. Other publications he wrote for, including Harper's, Rolling Stone and George, have reviewed his work. George has said it plans to apologize for quotes Glass fabricated in an article on Vernon E. Jordan.

"There's no gloating on my part about what happened to the New Republic," says Jim Kelly, deputy managing editor of Time magazine. "If I draw any lessons from this, it is to be extra careful about any stories that jibe with my more cynical view of how the world works."

Relies on writers

Time handles its fact-checking in much the same way as newspapers, largely leaving the duty to the individual writers. That's a marked change from 20 years ago when the weekly newsmagazine had phalanxes of fact-checkers.

"The magazine has shifted the responsibility for the accuracy of the report much more to the person who should have it all along, and that is the writer," says Kelly. "Ultimately, any publication is as good as its journalists. And a journalist who willfully wants to do something dishonest for his newspaper or magazine has a good chance of getting that done, if he's committed to it."

Glass succeeded until Forbes Digital Tool, the on-line magazine for Forbes, started looking into his May 18 story and could not confirm what he had written. His coverup was on a scale of sophistication far beyond what usually comes into the world of fact-checking. Because of the tacit agreement between writers and their publications, fact-checkers usually concern themselves with names, dates, places, numbers.

Small mistakes

"Nearly everything has some little mistake," says John T. Sellers, chief of news desk research for U.S. News & World Report. "A college might have been a university. It's not like they're big mistakes, but if somebody reads about it and knows, it can really lower the magazine's esteem."

U.S. News, a weekly, has four full-time staff members, two half-timers and two part-timers dedicated to fact-checking. Armed with the writer's file of sources, they go over the details. The idea is not to re-report the story, but to make sure what's in the story is accurate.

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