After Shearer located Wemp last year, she put him in touch with the magazine. The fact-checker interviewed him by phone in August and the magazine says that “Wemp raised only relatively minor factual objections to Diamond’s account and asserted that the stories were basically true,” according to Science. However, the New Yorker soon complied with a request from Wemp, passed on by Shearer, that the article be removed from the Web site. That’s why it’s now only available to subscribers. The magazine’s lawyer said this was a gesture of “good will.”
It appears as though Wemp told one version of the story to Diamond and another to Shearer’s researcher. The New Yorker says he reverted to his original story when a fact-checker was finally able to speak with him. This makes for a confusing situation. It may in fact require a court to sort it out.
But let’s set aside the lawsuit for a moment and rewind to when the magazine was checking the story. It had what was basically a single-source story, and it wasn’t able to check the article with the source, Daniel Wemp. The story itself also contained some very serious criminal allegations against the source in question. The dilemma is obvious: should you publish without getting some level of confirmation from the source or another party with specific knowledge of the events in question?
True, Diamond provided the magazine with what is by all accounts a notebook filled with detailed notes from his interview with Wemp, in addition to some recorded notes he made for himself. And there’s the fact that he’s, well, Jared Diamond, a respected author and scientist. A person’s reputation can’t excuse them from being checked, especially at the New Yorker, but he has impressive credentials. Was that a factor in deciding to go to print without further confirmation?
In the end, the magazine decided that Diamond’s notes were enough to move ahead with the story. (The experts it contacted had no specific knowledge of the events.) It also made the decision to use Wemp’s real name, thus implicating him in the murders. Remnick told Science that using real names is the standard journalistic practice, which is, of course, true.
“They thought they were being true to journalistic principles,” Michael Balter, the author of the Science article, told me. “An anthropologist would use pseudonyms. The problem in this situation is that you’ve got a principal named source, and it’s basically a one-source story… If you can’t find the original source, then what do you do when you’ve got somebody named as being involved in criminal behavior?”
Exactly. I researched the practice of magazine fact-checking and interviewed current and former New Yorker fact-checkers for my book. I can’t help but express a certain level of surprise that the story ended up in print. A reporter’s notes are a valid source of facts, but they are not the preferred way to check a story. Nor should they be the only source of information when it comes to such serious allegations.
Fact-checkers everywhere learned the perils of notes-only checking thanks to Stephen Glass. He got away with fabricating articles because he also fabricated his notes. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Diamond forged his notes. I don’t think that’s the case in any way, shape or form. My guess, and that’s all it is at this point, is that Wemp spun some tall tales without realizing they could come back to haunt him. One expert quoted in the Science article suggests this was the case:
Anthropologist Pauline Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a leading expert on tribal warfare in PNG, thinks Diamond was naïve if he accepted Wemp’s stories at face value, because young men in PNG often exaggerate their tribal warfare exploits or make them up entirely. “I could have told him immediately that it was a tall tale, an embellished story. I hear lots of them but don’t publish them because they are not true.”
As of now, there exist two very different versions of this tale of vengeance. In the end, someone’s reputation will certainly be vanquished.