Amid the discussion and debate about the sourcing and accuracy of Nicholas Schmidle’s lengthy retelling of the Bin Laden raid in The New Yorker, we’ve failed to hear from one important group of people. They have the detailed information about the sourcing of the article, and spoke to Schmidle’s sources to confirm the details long before it was published.
I’m talking about the vaunted New Yorker fact checkers. Their work provided the magazine with an all-important vote of confidence to publish the piece. It’s also a reason why The New Yorker and its editors are holding firm in their assertions that they’re satisfied with the piece, and why they and Schmidle haven’t felt the need to expand on the sourcing and reporting methods. At times, Schmidle’s been downright coy about them.
Here he is in a recent online chat on The New Yorker’s website: “I’ll just say that the 23 SEALs on the mission that evening were not the only ones who were listening to their radio communications.”
Here’s editor David Remnick explaining the sourcing and checking to Women’s Wear Daily: “In all, he interviewed officials with direct access both in the military, intelligence and in the White House; some of those officials are quoted by name, some not — hardly unusual. All of these sources were known to Nick’s editors and spoke extensively with two experienced New Yorker fact-checkers.”
And here’s a magazine spokesperson telling Yahoo that Schmidle “spoke to informed sources, some quoted by name, some not, in the military and in the White House security apparatus with knowledge of the raid. All of these sources spoke extensively to two New Yorker fact checkers who carefully vetted the piece.”
The checking process is being held up to say: we were rigorous about this piece and you need to trust that. It seems to provide the cover and confidence for the magazine to stick to the above details and offer nothing more.
Checking in Private
The New Yorker’s checkers are a well-trained group — some might liken them to the SEALs of the checking word — but the issue with this story is they do their work in private and don’t speak publicly. We’re being told to trust the methods, skills and work product of the checkers. End of story.
The problem is that, aside from rare fact checking and accuracy geeks like me, or magazine professionals, I doubt very few folks (and I’m including many journalists here) know exactly what’s involved in the checking process. How can you completely trust something that you don’t understand? Or that won’t reveal itself even partly when legitimate questions are raised about a major story?
While I don’t know the specifics of how this story was checked, I do know it presents a challenge for the checkers. And that means the already imperfect process of checking is further complicated.
The nature of this mission meant it required an almost unheard of level of secrecy within the White House, the CIA, and elsewhere. We don’t even know how many people followed the raid in real time when it occurred, or how many peopled debriefed the SEALs. Did the same person or team debrief all of the SEALs? Were the notes combined and put down on paper? Did Schmidle see any paper records? Did he interview the debriefer(s) or get that info from a secondary source? How many people did he speak with who actually watched/listened to the raid? If the version of events from a source who watched the raid in real time differs from the debriefing of the SEAL(s), which version did the magazine go with? Did this happen often? I could go on and on
Schmidle’s editor and the checkers who worked on the piece presumably know the answer to these questions, but they aren’t talking.
The largely confidential process of traditional magazine checking becomes problematic when a little sunlight is necessary to illuminate important facts and respond to legitimate questions.
A Checker Speaks
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