Blurring Nonfiction and Fiction

Can You Trust What You Read?

Unlike book publishers, who have months to check the facts in what they send out to readers, daily newspapers obviously cannot engage in extensive verification of stories, especially now, when competition is so intense. With the 24-hour news cycle, cable television or various online sources (trustworthy or not) can break a story at any time.

Nonetheless, editors at a daily paper, confronted with a serious charge that a claim in an important story doesn't look kosher, will make phone calls before the assertion gets into print.

Weekly newspapers have more time. I can only speak from experience about the Voice, which does, as I can attest, have a persistent checking staff. And when I answer letters to the editor, I often have to give the section's editor, Ron Plotkin, independent evidence of what I've said.

William Shawn: Late chief of The New Yorker’s fact police
photo: Marina Garnier
William Shawn: Late chief of The New Yorker’s fact police

Some magazines are as careless as book publishers with regard to nailing down alleged facts. For instance, Brill's Content—which attacked ABC-TV's Jackie Judd for false reporting during the Clinton impeachment months—was wrong. She received several awards for her work, which included being the first in the mainstream media to break the story of Monica Lewinsky's semen-stained dress. Nonetheless, Mr. Brill aspires to be the conscience of journalism.

A number of magazines have set consistently exacting standards for fact-checking. Most famously, The New Yorker has a staff that will go to extraordinary lengths to substantiate a writer's reporting.

During the 27 years I wrote for that magazine, I had to keep every scrap of research I'd done and then often spent hours answering checkers' additional questions. (Disciplined by that experience, I keep every source for these columns.)

When I wrote for them, Playboyand The Atlantic Monthly also had excellent standards.

I have never been able to understand why book publishers, with so much more time than magazines to examine manuscripts, are generally so excessively trusting of their authors.

I remember an informal meeting of editors and writers swapping horror stories of alarming errors that almost made it into print but were accidentally stopped. A recipe in a cookbook about to be sent to the printers by a major publisher was suddenly discovered by an outside reader who had seen the manuscript to have a poisonous ingredient. If she hadn't caught the mistake, the publisher's liability for damages could have been in the millions. And, not incidentally, some readers might have died.

These days, with conglomerates absorbing more formerly independent book firms, the pressures to cut costs are increasing. Editors are required to get books out faster, and concentration on accuracy diminishes.

An editor who has worked at several of the best-known firms—and does not want his name used because he'd like to keep on working—told me recently: "Many houses have little or no systematic fact-checking. Their lawyers do vet manuscripts to guard against possible libel lawsuits, and they also look for invasions of privacy that could bring the publisher into court. But the legion of other facts that are in any book too often go through on the sole authority of the writer."

What makes St. Martin's Press so acutely embarrassed at having to burn or trash 90,000 copies of J.H. Hatfield's biography of George W. Bush is that the possibility of a suit practically leapt off the manuscript. If anyone cared to look.

By far the best reporting on the St. Martin's disgrace was by Ellen Liburt in the October 30 Editor & Publisher.

Hatfield, with wholly anonymous sources, wrote that in 1972 George W. had been busted for cocaine possession and that his father has used his considerable influence to have the charge expunged from the record.

Further, Hatfield claimed that it was a Republican judge who did the deed. Simple checking on so inflammatory a charge would have shown that there were no Republican judges in office in that jurisdiction in 1972—and, moreover, that it wasn't until 1977 that a law was passed allowing that kind of expungement.

It will be interesting to see whether this highly publicized breach of trust between a book publisher and the reading public will impel other book firms to institute a professional fact-checking system. Robert B. Wallace, editor in chief of St. Martin's Press, has resigned, but that doesn't solve the industrywide problem.

Because of the growing conglomeration in the field, many workers in book publishing have been let go. Those who want to stay in publishing could be rehired as fact checkers. And more people are going to be looking for work as more independent houses are swallowed up by German, Dutch, and other foreign behemoths. (St. Martin's Press is owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck.)

It's very reassuring for an author to know that he or she will be protected by fact checkers. The writer has far less chance of being embarrassed, humiliated, or scorned—as J.H. Hatfield has been—if the book is examined in advance for accuracy.

Years ago, I was talking on the phone to an editor at The New Yorker. His voice lowered and he said, "The building shook this morning."

Unaware of any reports of earthquakes in the vicinity, I wondered what he was getting at.

"In this week's issue," he said, "a mistake in a piece got through into print."

To the editor at this time, William Shawn, this was utterly impermissible. Everyone who edited, fact-checked, or wrote for the magazine knew it. And we tried very hard not to be responsible for the building falling down.

This fear—and that's what it is—should become endemic in book publishing. Nonfiction should mean exactly that.

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