Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Last Fact Checker Pt. 2

I sat in "the fishbowl" at my new job, across the table from Bob, the king of the fact checkers. The fishbowl was, and is, a table in a room with glass windows all around it, hence the name. Bob was a long-time employee at my well known financial magazine. Thorough, professional, Bob was who you called when you wanted to make sure a fact checking job was done absolutely to the letter. He also trained the new fish in the editorial pool.

He had brought along a sample of fact-checked copy to show me how it was done. Over here, at the magazine, there were very specific ways you had to check a fact. Knowing something, obviously, just wouldn't cut it. Finding something on the Internet was not good at all. Dictionaries and encyclopedias could be wrong. Other news sources? Forget it! Those losers didn't even fact check! There were only a few "checkable" sources, it turns out, in the whole wide world. Our own magazine being one of them. But then there were a few more.

Government documents, it turns out, are as good as gold. The Securities and Exchange Commission might be inept, but they don't lie. The IRS might make you poor, or drive our readers into fits of rage, but they are accurate with their figures. You get the picture.

Company documents were reliable, in about 99% of the cases you would find. Occasionally, of course, firms would lie about their books, but more by what they left out than by what they included. If they said they earned $10 million last quarter by jove that was something you could consider a checked fact, provided it came from their annual reports, or something else equally official. If they were Enron, however, you were SOL, but then again that's a story, right? If you are a perceptive reader by now you are probably starting to understand why financial journalism routinely is late to so many big stories. Me included. We believe the numbers in the official documents, even though we understand that the whole enterprise might be a bit, shall we say, shady? But it's hard to find what's left out.

People, as unreliable as they may be, it turns out, can be checkable sources. If you interview someone and they say they are 59 years old and grew up in Belfast -- and then they confirm these data points to the fact checker -- that's considered checked. Of course people who commit fraud, or lie about their age, or just plain get things wrong can screw this system up, but that's why we do additional reporting. Still, a verbal confirmation, in many cases, turned out to be considered good enough. Even so, I spoke to many people who just didn't understand why they had to give information as basic as their name again, they already gave it to writer!

And here was how we got all this down on paper, Bob told me. He showed me a story, in some kind of weird format. "You underline every fact in this story," he said. "You have to check every single fact in this piece, every single one." He looked at me with an unusual mixture of intensity and boredom. I was grateful for this training, but sad that he had to train me. Does that make any sense? So, here's how the drill worked. You would underline the facts to check, as stated. Then with a different colored pen you would underline each checked fact. Ideally as the process went along you would eventually identify the three or four facts that remained stubbornly unchecked. And then you would lock those down, and that would be that. You would have a story that is nothing but double lines.

I must repeat we had to fact check everything. If a guy's name was Pete Smith I would ask him, or check in some way, if his first name was short for Peter, and if his last name was spelled Smith "in the traditional way." You would be amazed how hung up people got on their nicknames. We didn't accept nicknames. If everybody called me Dave I would have to go in as David. Or, if I absolutely, positively insisted upon using Dave then it would be coupled with my middle initial, for god know's what reason. So even though 99% of the world knows me as Dave Serchuk, in my well known magazine I would become either David Serchuk or Dave A. Serchuk. If I got Attila the Hun on the phone it is likely he would have come out as Attila T. Hun.

Sometimes the checking would be largely done via a few phone calls to a few key sources. Even though I would receive reams of official documents to check a particular fact here or there even the most scrupulous journalist would have stories backed by the say-so of a few sources here or there. There was often no other way. I would get on the phone with them, after ideally receiving a carefully laid out list of whom to contact and about what. It often seemed like a silly, pointless exercise, except for one problem.

I always found facts that were wrong. I mean each and every single time, in every single story, no matter how good the writer. And some writers had a lot more mistakes than others. Ranking writers just as much as newbies. And this is where the rubber hit the road for the fact checkers. Your job was to catch these mistakes, including checking all the math. And for this yeoman's work the writer might say "good catch" to you as you showed them the problem. Sometimes these mistakes were dangerous. But you never got any real credit for finding them. But if you ever missed a mistake, watch out brother, it could count against your future at the publication.

Then once you checked you copy, which typically took two to three days for complicated stories -- and by this point my copy would have two different colored inks, highlights and lord knows what else on it -- it would go to an editor, who would often change a bunch of stuff, and introduce a whole group of new facts to check. Some editors at this stage would re-write the whole thing, and leave you scrambling, right before the story was to go to the copy desk to fill in all their blanks.

One editor -- now long gone -- was notorious for coming in, changing the whole story, making an enormous commotion and then going home, leaving the humble fact checker to pick up the pieces. Another editor, also now gone, simply introduced mistakes into stories. Over and over. He would write something new in the story, and then include a little flagged note like this: "Right?" As in: "'And then in 1987 Donald Trump bought the Empire State Building For $25 million. (Right?)'" I exaggerate with just how dumb his mistakes could get, but not by all that much.

But that was all for the future. For now Bob was looking at me, as I tried to grasp the significance of the "double line" system, and which sources could cut it. If I found ten websites that all confirmed the same basic fact could that ever work? What if sources have reason to lie? How do I file all this stuff, and what happens then? All this would be made clear to me, but that's not how he said it. He was impatient to go, and check some facts of his own, but he wanted to make sure he was not liable for me. Because fact checking, at its core, was all about covering ass. This I would learn.

"Yes, I think I get it, thank you Bob," I told him at the end of my hour long lesson. I clutched my ream of sample fact-checked stories from 1999, trying to absorb them. One story was by a writer long gone, about a technology that no one cared about anymore. This was my text and I would study it.

"Okay," he said, not seeming all that convinced, but not seeming all that bothered either. He had a job to do, or at least another job to do after this one. He got up, left the fishbowl and went back to doing what he was good at, checking facts.

I also got up. This would take a lot of precision, an understanding of the law in some cases and even some math, never my favorite subject; which you might find odd for a guy who already worked as a financial journalist, right? Right? Trust me, I wasn't the only one with this problem. You would be surprised.

But I was determined that this wouldn't screw up my new job. This was my shot and I was going to make sure I got it right.

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