The magazine employs close to twenty checkers, including Peter Canby, a senior editor who leads the department and is a long-time checker. Several times over the past few years I’ve requested interviews with him, and each time Canby has politely declined, including when I met him in person for the first time last spring at a fact checking conference in Germany. I did, however, manage to shoot some relevant video of him talking about what The New Yorker fact checkers expect from the writers they work with:
“We do ask people the newspaper clips the magazine stories they consulted, the telephone numbers of their sources, Wikipedia files (which we find very often) … and we ask writers for their notebooks and their tapes and their transcripts,” Canby said.
So what did Schmidle provide when his story was passed to the checkers? Canby again politely declined to talk more, but provided this information by e-mail:
We can’t discuss the details of how the Schmidle piece was checked except to say that we’re completely confident in its accuracy. What I can tell you is that the identities of the members of the SEAL squad that executed the mission are classified and that the SEALs who actually pulled off the mission were therefore unavailable. But its also true that the event was followed in real time by multiple sources in several locations—and there were also extensive after-the-fact debriefings.
That confirms the checkers did not speak with any of the SEALs. Not a surprise at this point, but it’s another piece of the puzzle.
I doubt we’ll learn much more about the sourcing and checking. The New Yorker invests such a significant amount of time, money, and human resources into checking and editing that I think there’s a sense within the publication that what it puts out requires no further explanation or justification. They did the work, now you read.
But when a story is born of an unusual amount of secrecy, it’s important for people to understand the methods used to obtain and verify the information. This is especially true when you consider the importance of the event being retold in this example, and the fact that Schmidle’s family connection to the military makes increased disclosure a necessary course of action, if only to protect the good work he’s done. (His father is Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., the deputy commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.)
What’s particularly disappointing, though, is the magazine and Schmidle are missing out on an opportunity to publish another fascinating narrative—a piece that completes the picture of the raid by retelling as best as possible how he got the story and worked to confirm the details.
Transparency can be a great storytelling device, too.
Correction of the Week
“Certified public accountant John Borchert of Little Rock has not filed for bankruptcy protection. His name was erroneously included in Monday’s list of Arkansans who filed for bankruptcy, when in fact he is the CPA for the bankruptcy trustee.” — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette