Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Last Fact Checker

Okay, fact checking was never quite this cool.

Since I've been writing about the business news world a bit recently I thought I would talk a little bit about the job I had about two jobs ago. I was still working at my well known financial news firm at the time, but I was then at the well known financial magazine. I was a reporter by title, but by reality I was a fact checker.

Of course that wasn't how I thought of myself, usually, on most days, when I wasn't busy fact checking. Except for the fact that I fact checked, it felt like, most of the time. When I wasn't doing that I was free to write my own stuff. In fact I had to write my own stuff if I ever wanted to get promoted out of fact checking. But if I had a fact-checking assignment I had to do it first, dammit! Or is it damnit? As a fact checker I would make sure to find out.

Now the only reason I am writing about this former job is because I sense, with the way things are going in the economy, fact checkers are soon to be a bit of quaint ancient history, like men's sock garters, the Charleston and pensions. Although I was hired in 2004 and did it through about two years ago (Note: I would never be able to get away with a weasley word like "about" in fact checking land) in the grand scheme of things I am slated to be, or have been, just about The Last Fact Checker. Sure a few will come after me, but if the clock is striking midnight in financial journalism -- especially at magazines -- I became a fact checker at two minutes 'till.

Although I was already in my 30s when I was hired, and had been a journalist for about 10 years, more or less, and written some truly explosive stuff, more or less, I had never really known what it meant to "check" a fact, more or less. I had written things that were factual, yes, as a journalist that was kind of the job. And I had checked them. But I had never learned THE PROCESS of what actual fact checking was all about.

And, for honesty's sake, I must admit I had made a factual mistake or two (but only two!) in the early part of my career that could have been corrected had I known about the THE PROCESS. For example I once went to an African "auction" in Boulder, I mean Denver. If you have ever been to Boulder, you know that it would be well nigh impossible to get that much cultural diversity into one room. So in Denver. And it was a truly delightful event until I heard someone on stage talk about how the people bidding were so aggressive in their haggling it was like they had just gotten out of synagogue.

Wait ... what? I had been having a good time, but this just went too far. So I wrote it up, and called them out for it. It was honest, tough and ballsy of me. And also wrong. No, I was told on the phone by the organizers, they had said SENEGAL. Where all the jewelry they were auctioning came from. The call ended with them saying why didn't you just call us to check? But I had been there, I had heard it, you know the words sound a lot a like ... but lesson learned. Ouch, but lesson learned.

Thankfully that little event came to nothing, but I learned a valuable lesson, or a few. 1) People overly-concerned anti-Semitism will eventually find it 2) I might want to check that controversial fact twice, even if, no especially if, I heard it in person.

I continued on my job, never again making any mistakes as truly mortifying as the one mentioned above. (After all, hurting race relations is bad enough.) Eventually I became a financial reporter upon moving into New York in 1999. Scorched by the past I always double checked any facts, and made sure to triple check anything from the Internet. Like this blog! I developed a pattern, and it worked, but I didn't find out about just how hard-core it could be to truly "fact check" until the well known financial magazine put me through my paces.

Working in the business world I now understand that often we were the only ones who did check our facts, but there's more time for such musings later.

(More to come. Let's hope tomorrow!)

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