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.
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.