All this changed when Tina Brown arrived. Whereas before, editorial schedules were predictable for weeks or a month in advance, under Tina we began getting 8,000-, 10,000-, 12,000-word pieces in on a Thursday that were to close the following Wednesday. But something else changed in a way that is more important. Prior to Tina, the magazine really had been writer-driven, and I think this is why they gave the writers so much liberty. They wanted the writers to develop their own, often eccentric, interests.
Under Tina, writing concepts began to originate in editors’ meetings, and assignments were given out to writers who were essentially told what to write. And a lot of what the editors wanted was designed to be timely and of the moment and tended to change from day to day. So the result was that we were working on pieces that were really much more controversial and much less well-formulated than anything we had dealt with previously, and often we would put teams of checkers to work on these pieces and checking and editing could go on all night.
When the new, remade The New Yorker of the last decade was gearing up and we started getting all these late-breaking stories, issues such as logic and fairness and balance—which previously had been the responsibility of the editors—began to fall on the checkers. This wasn’t by anybody’s design. It was because the editors were really busy putting these stories together and they wanted us to look at things from the outside and see how they were framed, and look at them from the inside and look at the logic and the way they were reported and the way quotes were used and many other such things.
That responsibility came to us not in the way of anybody saying suddenly, “You’re doing that.” It just became that when a problem arose, they would come to us and say, “Why didn’t you warn us?” And so it just became clear that there was this gap between editing and checking that had opened up under the pressure of later-breaking stories, and it just seemed logical that we should fill it. It made our job more challenging, and more fun.
Another change that took place in The New Yorker fact-checking during this same period came about in the mid-’90s as the result of the fallout from what was known as the Janet Malcolm case. Janet Malcolm is a New Yorker writer of great distinction. In 1983, she wrote a profile of a psychoanalyst named Jeffrey Masson, who subsequently sued her and the magazine for libel (it was an unfavorable story).
The court case didn’t resolve itself until 1994. The charge was that Janet Malcolm had compressed, rearranged, and even fabricated quotes. In 1993, The New Yorker was separated out of the judgment and in 1994, Malcolm was cleared of libel charges in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Prior to this resolution, when writers gave us their sources, they gave us books, magazine clips, news clips, and phone numbers, but they didn’t give us notes, and after the resolution of the case, we began to insist that writers turn in their notes to us as well.
And prior to the case, when people were quoted, we would call them up and we’d go over the information in the quote, but we would never go over the quote with them, for obvious reasons. You go over a quote with somebody, they don’t like the way they sound. Even if they said something, they are going to say, “Oh, that’s not what I meant.” Then there’s a problem. So that standard still holds. When we call people on the phone, which we do all the time, we never read them their quotes.
But after the Malcolm case was settled, we began to ask writers to include their notes, their tapes, and their transcripts with their source material, and this gave us a great deal more flexibility in how to approach stories. We continued to call sources, as I mentioned, but whenever there was a particularly controversial or sensitive issue or it was somebody that we couldn’t reach for whatever reason, we had the notes to fall back on. And the ideal for us—in fact, pretty much the norm—is both to use the notes and to call people, because notes can be wrong, just as with everything else.