Darrel Frost

The Rise and Fall of Facts

December 6, 2019

In his 1964 Harper’s Magazine article on fact-checking, “There Are 00 Trees in Russia,” Otto Friedrich related the story of an unnamed magazine correspondent who had been assigned a profile of Egyptian president Mohamed Naguib. As was custom, he wrote his story leaving out the “zips”—facts to be filled in later—including noting that Naguib was “such a modest man that his name did not appear among the 000 people listed in Who’s Who in the Middle East” and that he elected not to live in the royal palace, surrounded “by an 00-foot-high wall.” The editor then sent the article to a fact checker in Cairo to fill in the zips. No answer came and, with the deadline looming, the editor, fuming, rewrote the story so the facts weren’t needed. A week later, the magazine received a telegram from the fact checker:

Am in jail and allowed to send only one cable since was arrested while measuring fifteen foot wall outside farouks palace and have just finished counting thirtyeight thousand five hundred twentytwo names who’s who in mideast.

Friedrich’s anecdote reveals the great truth of fact-checking: while facts are sacred to writers, readers, and, above all, editors, they are sometimes more work than they’re worth. The importance of fact-checking—particularly when it comes to inconsequential detail—is based on the long-held theory that if you’re fastidious about the little things, the reader will trust you with the big things. But the history of fact-checking suggests that too often, the accumulation of verifiable minutiae can become an end unto itself.

ICYMI: A tweet about Kamala Harris that was reposted thousands of times turned out to be false

Early newspaper printers had more interest in opinion and polemic than objectivity. There was little premium on facts—readers wanted the news, but they wanted it slanted. This began to change with the advent of wire services, where space was precious. In 1854, Daniel H. Craig, the head of the Associated Press, sent out a circular to his agents detailing a request for only “material facts in regard to any matter or event”—in as few words as possible. “All expressions of opinion upon any matters; all political, religious, and social biases; and especially all personal feelings on any subject on the part of the Reporter, must be kept out of his dispatches.” Wire reports couldn’t afford to expend wasted verbiage on opinion or local idiom—they needed to distill newsworthy content to its bare minimum. Doing so was a good business: the Associated Press packaged its content as the raw material that local newspapers could fashion into their own opinion and spin. 

Facts sped up the rate at which news could be produced and consumed. This was a double-edged sword, since it led to an increased fear of “honest inaccuracies,” as Ralph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, explained in an address at Columbia University in 1912. Soon after, the World established its Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play in an effort to reduce the number of errors in an increasingly complicated system of correspondents, writers, editors, and layout editors. Its work was mostly retroactive, focusing on catching deliberate fakery and printing apologies rather than fact-checking material before it went to print.

In 1923, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce revolutionized the role and purpose of facts. Their fledgling publication—Time magazine—would gather up other outlets’ work and edit it into bite-size reports and commentary. To ensure before publication that every printed word was objectively verifiable, they added another major innovation: a research department, or what we now call fact checking. (The working title of the magazine was Facts.) Editor John Shaw Billings crowed in 1933 that “We can ask what dress Queen Mary wore last Thursday and have an answer in twenty minutes.”

This method of chasing down even the most minute details was not without its critics. When a Time fact checker working on a profile of Peter F. Drucker, the management consultant, asked what kind of dog he had, Drucker described his senile, half-blind, and lame beagle simply as a “hunting dog,” which the checker entered into her notes. The writer of the profile then changed “hunting dog” into “ferocious German Shepherd,” leading Drucker to conclude that Time’s fact-checking system was one where “the writer does not really understand the facts, and the researcher does not really understand the story.”

The research process at Time would set the standard for American magazines. But no publication has been more consistently identified with its rigorous fact-checking than The New Yorker. It began to mercilessly check facts after an error-plagued 1927 profile of Edna St. Vincent Millay led to Millay’s mother threatening a libel suit against the magazine. The New Yorker’s obsession with facts quickly became almost an end unto itself. The magazine established a fact-checking empire, one composed of telephone directories and reference books, carbon copies and filing systems. 

Fact-checking was initially conceived of as women’s work, and it remained so through the 1970s. A 1971 book, No Experience Necessary: A Guide to Employment for the Female Liberal Arts Graduate, listed fact-checking as one of many possible jobs for young women, describing it as “a grisly job involving a lot of work, research skill and judgment” and noting that there can be “a great deal of unpleasantness from editors who consider themselves subject-matter experts.” Friedrich, of  Harper’s, described the archetypal fact checker as “a girl in her twenties, usually from some Eastern college, pleasant-looking but not a femme fatale. She came from college unqualified for anything, but looking for an ‘interesting’ job. After a few years, she usually feels, bitterly and rightly, that nobody appreciates her work.” Nancy Ford, the first fact checker hired at Time, left the magazine after only a few months, apparently unable to take the strain and exhaustion.

If writers were pitted against fact checkers, it was because the former resented a check on the idea of the lone genius whose words were unassailable. In the era of New Journalism, The New Yorker’s fact-checking arm came in for criticism from figures like Tom Wolfe, who saw in it a form of groupthink and regarded it as a cabal of women and middling editors all collaborating to henpeck and emasculate the prose of the Great Writer.

Since the dawn of the digital age, upstart and august publications alike have largely abandoned fact-checking when it comes to online stories. Unlike print, digital content is never completely set in stone, so websites have returned to an ethos closer to that of the New York World’s Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play, issuing post facto corrections as needed in lieu of prepublication checking.

Because fact-checking these days is primarily the domain of legacy print publications, it retains that sheen of legitimacy and seriousness. To fact check is to assure readers, writers, and editors that great care is being taken—even if that care is, on some level, still superficial. A perfectly checked article, after all, can still be fundamentally wrong about its assumptions or conclusions. Ultimately, facts themselves lack the ability to deliver one to the truth. But unlike beliefs or opinions, facts are quantifiable. They can be agreed upon. They are communal property. That’s why we like them.

ICYMI: The case of a viral video shows how quickly the press can abandon ethics

Colin Dickey is the author of three books of nonfiction, most recently Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016). His next book, The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained, will be published in the summer of 2020 by Viking Books.