Monday, August 20, 2012
It Was Published. It Was Not Fact-Checked.
Never mind whose side you're on in the fuss between Paul Krugman and a host of other reputable economists on one side, and Nial Ferguson, a cockamamie Harvard professor of history on the other, about Ferguson's maniacal cover story in Newsweek.
Well, on second thought, do mind. If you side with Ferguson, move to Missouri and vote for Todd Akin.
Otherwise, consider this little item buried in the exchange of broadsides: Newsweek did not repeat not fact-check the article! According to Dylan Byers of Politico, a Newsweek spokesman said the magazine does not have a fact-checking department, and that "we, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material."
I hope the magazine's mouthpiece is wrong that "other news organizations today" don't check the facts before publishing. I hope the New York Times, where I once worked, not only holds editors accountable for the veracity of every word in every story they vet, but also still backs them up with the superb research department we were able to consult back then. I hope the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I once worked, hasn't lost the lesson it learned when it was zapped with the biggest libel judgement in history for failing adequately to check the work of a writer who was a known drunk and had a widely known jihad against one of the subjects of his article. I hope the Detroit Free Press, where I once worked, despite its economic troubles, has not ceased to hold editors accountable for the accuracy of the stories they edit. (I once got hauled up to the office of Lee Hills, then the Free Press publisher, to explain why I allowed a a sentence with a subtle double-meaning -- not an error, mind you, but something that readers might misconstrue -- slip into a complex story.)
The very first thing we learned in journalism class, the very first thing we drummed into the skulls of rookie reporters, was, "Get it right!" And we -- the editors -- were, by God, there to make damned sure they learned that lesson.
Because, truth to tell, that's all we had: getting it right. The scandalously low pay, the ridiculously long hours, the shabby newsrooms -- badges of honor, because day after day, when the presses rolled we could pick up the first-offs and read our stories -- the ones we had reported, edited, checked, and checked again -- and know that we got it right. We owed that to our readers because they trusted us to get it right.
If we could get it right in fine language -- "Literature in a hurry," as one great editor used to say -- all the better. If we could get it first and get it right, better still. If we could get it right and get it exclusively, best of all.
But always, always, first and foremost, get it right.
Nial Ferguson reported demonstrable economic fallacies, not facts, on several matters of key importance in his Newsweek screed. That is to his discredit.
That it got into print is to the magazine's everlasting shame. No fact-checkers?
Get the hell out of business.