Last month, Columbia Journalism Review Books and Columbia University Press released The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry, an anthology of insights and reminiscences from top magazine editors. The book is based on talks given to students as part of the Delacorte Lecture Series at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The following is excerpted from chapter five, “Fact-Checking at The New Yorker,” which is itself taken from a lecture delivered by New Yorker fact-checking director Peter Canby on February 28, 2002.
Preventing errors from appearing in the magazine is not a simple process. For openers, you need to know that in addition to the basic reporting pieces, we also check “The Talk of the Town,” the critics, fiction, poetry, cartoons, art, captions, the table of contents, certain of the several-paragraph-long essays in the “Goings On” section. We also fact-check the contributors page, the cover wrap, the letters column, all the press releases, and a good deal of the recently mounted Web site.
To start checking a nonfiction piece, you begin by consulting the writer about how the piece was put together and using the writer’s sources as well as our own departmental sources. We then essentially take the piece apart and put it back together again. You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le Carré piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.
Or if we describe the basis on which the FDA approved or disapproved the medical tests that ImClone used for Erbitux, then you need to find out what the complexities of that whole situation were. And of course, this kind of thing has consequences, because if you get it wrong, it matters. We also work on complicated pieces such as the ones we’ve been running this fall about the Pentagon’s top-secret team that is trained to snatch nukes away from belligerent countries, or the piece about the Predator drone that had a clear shot at Mullah Omar, for better or for worse, and didn’t take the shot because the CENTCOM attorneys were not clear on the legality of that operation.
But the unfortunate thing is that when The New Yorker is wrong on these allegations, which we are from time to time, the cry goes out not for the writer or for the editor but for the fact-checker. In the department, we refer to that as the Shoot-the-Fact-Checker Syndrome, which is one of our occupational hazards.
Prior to the Tina Brown period, there were eight checkers. And particularly during the editorship of William Shawn, which was when I started—Shawn was the editor of The New Yorker from ’52 to ’87—stories progressed in an orderly, almost stately way toward publication. Writers would work on pieces for as long as they felt was useful and necessary, and that often meant years. Once the pieces were accepted, they were edited, copyedited, and fact-checked on a schedule that typically stretched out for weeks and sometimes for months.
This process could produce some really wonderful writing. The last piece I worked on before I left The New Yorker the first time around was something that I always think epitomizes a Shawn-era piece, although it was published by Shawn’s distinguished successor, Bob Gottlieb. But I think it was commissioned by Shawn. This piece was The New Yorker’s four-part excerpt of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, which is a Vietnam book that went on to win not only a National Book Award but also a Pulitzer Prize.
Sheehan was one of the top Vietnam journalists. He was the reporter to whom Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers. The subject of A Bright Shining Lie was a man named John Paul Vann. Sheehan had met Vann in the early ’60s when he was a UPI reporter in Vietnam and Vann was a kind of maverick army officer who was very critical of the way that the
world war was being conducted even then.