Who Owns the Fact-Checking Problem?

You may have heard about the controversy that erupted earlier this week over reported inaccuracies in Jill Abramson’s soon-to-be-published Merchants of Truth, billed by its publisher as “the definitive report on the disruption of the news media over the last decade”—and given that Abramson was the former executive editor of the New York Times, most of us would’ve been inclined to take Simon & Schuster on its word there, right? Me too, until I saw a tweet from Arielle Duhaime-Ross, the environmental science correspondent for HBO’s VICE News Tonight.

“I don’t usually do this — and honestly never imagined I’d need to,” Duhaime-Ross wrote, “but I have to do a bit of clarifying about myself and my professional qualifications.” In the series of tweets that followed, she detailed how the single paragraph of Merchants of Truth in which she’s mentioned was riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations. Not only had Abramson managed to create a falsely jejune portrait of Duhaime-Ross’s academic and journalistic career, she’d even managed to describe* her as a trans woman, even after Duhaime-Ross had carefully explained her queer, gender non-conforming (but cis) woman* during their interview.

Other people who were mentioned in the book came forward to describe how Abramson had gotten facts about them wrong, too. For her part, Abramson argued that everybody was quoting from the advance reader’s copy (ARC), which has a standard disclaimer—essentially, we’re not done editing the book yet, so wait for the finished copy before you quote anything. The finished book, Abramson implied, would not contain all these errors.

This happens to be an area in which I have some expertise, as both an author of a nonfiction book and a former acquisitions editor for a book publishing company. So I can tell you that Abramson’s statement is accurate as far as it goes: Yes, the early version of a book that’s sent out to reviewers is often run off the manuscript before it’s been copyedited, so there are likely to be some differences between that book and the final version that’s sold in stores.

Those differences, however, are usually quite minor. The copyeditor might suggest some grammatical refinements, some closer adherence to AP or Chicago style, some small corrections. The undoubtedly accidental reference to “Charlottesville, North Carolina” that someone else pointed out in the ARC of Merchants of Truth is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about here. You’re writing a book pegged to current events under a tight deadline, you make a couple dumb mistakes, your copyeditor catches them, and you shake your head ruefully and consider yourself lucky to have people looking out for you.

A copyeditor is not a fact checker, but any copyeditor worthy of the name is going to catch an obvious error like “Charlottesville, North Carolina.” A really good copyeditor will spot subtler errors, like, for example, a passage in a novel describing a character driving a car uptown on Lexington Avenue. An excellent copyeditor would see a reference identifying Arielle Duhaime-Ross as a “trans woman,” and decide that if Jill Abramson thought that was a detail worth mentioning, it’s a detail worthy verifying. And when that proved inaccurate, an excellent copyeditor might start picking at some of the other threads in that paragraph…

So, speaking from my editorial perspective, if a copyeditor came back to me outlining a level of inaccuracy such as Duhaime-Ross described in her thread, I would be livid. I mean, if you can’t even bother to get the gender presentation* of someone you’ve met and had a conversation with right, let alone the details of her CV, I’d have to ask myself whether I can trust any of the reported details in the manuscript. And that’s obviously not a position you want to be in as an editor, especially not an editor who paid as much for a book as Jill Abramson’s editor did.

The copyediting stage of the production cycle isn’t designed for major rewrites to correct massive inaccuracies. For one thing, if you do a major rewrite after a copyedit, guess what you have to do next? That’s right: Another copyedit, which eats up time on the production calendar, as well as money that the publisher has to pay to the freelance copyeditor. (You didn’t think that was a staff position, did you?) So if you find yourself having to “fix” your reporting that late in the game, it’s because you seriously screwed up back at the beginning.

The thing is, when you sign a contract with a publisher for a nonfiction book, there’s usually some clause in there to the effect that you’re promising the publisher everything in the book is factually accurate. The burden is on you, not on them.

Whenever something like this Jill Abramson brouhaha happens, people inevitably start asking, “Well, why isn’t the burden on the publisher? Why doesn’t the publisher fact-check a book before publishing it?” The obvious answer is that most publishers don’t want to spend the money. They don’t want to pay for a freelance fact-checker on top of the freelance copyeditor they’re already paying for, and they definitely don’t want to put a fact-checker on staff and have to deal with benefits and all that stuff.

Furthermore, in those rare cases when a book’s inaccuracies are so flagrant or pervasive (or both!) that it blows up and becomes a media thing, it’s always the author who takes the hit to his or her reputation. It’s the author who may have trouble selling another book, who’s held up to nostalgic ridicule in the media when they do manage to make a comeback. The publisher doesn’t suffer any serious long-term consequences, so it’s not really worth it to do much more than the minimum to not find themselves in such a situation.

Part of me finds that outrageous, part of me wants to believe that publishers should be more accountable, should at the very least hold themselves more accountable, for the accuracy of what goes out under their imprimatur. As an editor, however, I know that I did, in fact, care about publishing good, accurate nonfiction, and that as I read and reread manuscripts, I did everything I could within the material constraints of the job to see to that accuracy. Realistically, though, those constraints often limited me to asking about things that felt distinctively “off,” and otherwise falling back on my default trust in authors caring enough about their subject matter to get it right.

And another part of me doesn’t have a problem with that. That part wants the author to accept the responsibility of getting the facts straight as a fundamental part of caring enough about a story to share it with the world. It’s a cliché, but if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And I say this as somebody who wrote a book with a few glaring mistakes that none of us caught, mistakes that made it into the published version, that still make me feel a twinge of embarrassment when I remember them more than a decade later.

(Thankfully, I don’t usually remember them much anymore, except when I’m thinking my way through essays like this one.)

(And it wasn’t anything as awful as messing up someone’s gender presentation*, more like putting an actor in the wrong role in a fifty-year-old movie. As I say, embarrassing.)

Does that mean authors should have to shell out the money for freelance fact-checkers? Well, just where do you think that money’s going to come from? Sure, if you received an advance on the level of Jill Abramson’s reported $1,000,000, you might have enough on hand to pay somebody to go through every line of your manuscript. Most of us, though, are just going to have to do the best we can as we go along… which we should be doing anyway, right?

I mean, I’m repeating myself now, but if you’re going to write about other people, you want to be honest and accurate about them, right? Unless, I suppose, you’re perfectly happy to twist the facts to conform to a story you’ve already constructed in your head. But I’m not really equipped or inclined to talk somebody through that…

LET’S WORK: I’m putting together my editorial calendar for 2019, so if you’ve got a fiction or narrative nonfiction manuscript, I’m ready to provide constructive feedback on where your attention should be focused in the next draft. I can read the entire manuscript, or just the first fifty pages, and then tell you what’s working, and where I think changes might make the manuscript more distinctive to agents or editors. You have a story you want to tell; I want to help you tell it.

(Coincidentally enough, if you follow that link, you’ll see that I do explicitly say that I’m not a fact checker; “unless I spot an obvious error,” I write, “I assume you know your subject, and my goal is to establish whether you’re writing about it clearly.”)

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*EDITS: Originally, I referred to Abramson’s labels for Duhaime-Ross as a “misgendering,” but shortly after this was first published, the issue was clarified for me. Although Abramson’s reference to Duhaime-Ross as a trans woman rather than a gender non-conforming woman was inaccurate, that’s a misread of her gender presentation, not of her gender identity. So I’ve made a few minor tweaks to the original language to more accurately that situation.