And we always did the best we could to give people who were mentioned in a piece the chance to let us know if there was some wild-card reason not to publish the piece. It also allowed us the courtesy of telling people that they were about to appear in The New Yorker, so they wouldn’t be hit completely out of the blue. I feel strongly about this, because whether you’re delivering them good or bad news, the contact with these ultimately real people humanizes the process. I often think of the fact-checking process as setting off a series of controlled explosions, where it’s much better to have people go off before publication than afterward.
The use of writers’ notes raised another set of complicated issues. At the inception of this policy there was a lot of internal debate about how to go about it, and the suggestion was made that we require writers to use tape recorders. And this was rejected because of the general feeling that we didn’t want to put writers in a methodological straitjacket. But the result of that is that we got notes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from completely clear and legible and word-processed to the completely illegible.
Sometimes writers presented what were clearly second-generation notes. One long-term Shawn-era writer who didn’t like the change in procedures gave us for several stories a notebook filled with scrawls—you could picture her at home going, “Ha ha ha.” She got over that eventually.
Most of the complications surrounding the new policy revolved around the question of how we would use notes. When you actually report something, you’re sitting and talking with somebody. If you’re writing it by hand, it’s really not possible to write as quickly as somebody speaks to you. So you don’t actually write down what somebody says, you write down a distillation of what somebody says.
You might write keywords, key phrases, sentence fragments. You also know that when you’re writing down what somebody says to you, you have to work with a split mind, probably a three-part mind. You have to be focusing on writing what the person said a few minutes ago. You have to pay attention to what the person is saying in the present, which is different from what you are writing, and you also have to worry about what your next question is going to be.
Then when the interview is done, you put your notebook in your pocket, you put your pen away, you walk out to your car, you do whatever you do, and then the person stops you and says the most important thing of all. And you realize that their saying that at that moment has something to do with the fact that your pen is not in your hand and your notebook is put away, and you realize that if you pull out your notebook and pull out the pen it’s going to break the spell and you will wreck this moment of revelation.
So what do you do? You spin the conversation as long as you can get. You get as much as information as you can get, and you go back into your car or hotel room or your coffee shop and you write it down after the fact. And again, that’s not exactly what the person said to you, but it’s legitimate. This is the way reporting happens.
All of this means that working with someone’s notes is not a science. It requires judgment and discretion and a strong sense, which comes only with practice, of what is acceptable and what is not.
Ultimately we make mistakes. I wish we didn’t, but they are inevitable and constant. It does seem to be something of a national sport to write letters to The New Yorker and point out these mistakes. And often the mistake letters we receive explain that the letter’s writer has been reading The New Yorker for years and he’s never seen anything like this, that Shawn and Harold Ross must be turning in their graves, that the writer didn’t realize that as a cost-cutting measure The New Yorker had eliminated its fact-checking department, and did we know that there used to be fact-checkers in the old days?
These letters aren’t a great deal of fun for us, but we take some consolation in the idea that the indignation is perhaps a reflection of their high expectations and the degree to which we are generally successful in getting the magazine out there in a fairly sharp and timely fashion.
And the only reason that The New Yorker system works, however well it does, is because we’ve always had very good institutional support. All the editors have been big supporters of the checking process.