For my money, the four most important people on The Walrus editorial team are Victoria Beale, Gregory Furgala, Kristin Gorsline, and Sara McCulloch. These fact-checking interns, hired for a six-month stint, earn very little glory and no pay, but are vital to the work of the magazine. Every item we publish must withstand their scrutiny; they re-interview subjects, scour primary and secondary sources, and verify facts with experts. They consult frequently with editors and writers, debating and discussing the most accurate word choices and descriptions. If information can’t be verified to our standards, sections of stories are cut or reworked. It takes days, even weeks, for an intern to thoroughly fact check a story — only to be followed by another intern, who then double checks everything.
A few recent fact-checking endeavours at The Walrus: during some of the worst violence in Yemen, one intern tracked down a woman in that country, the sister of an memoirist, to corroborate details of family history; meanwhile, another intern spoke to about a dozen geneticists, researchers, and doctors to check a story about the Human Genome Project; yet another intern confirmed the length of one day’s parliamentary session down to the minute. Even fiction is fact checked in The Walrus: if, say, a protagonist has a coming-of-age moment during the 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs, an intern will verify the teams that played that year — for the record, Detroit Red Wings versus Washington Capitals. (That is, unless the author’s intention is to monkey around with reality. But in such cases, the story will be checked for internal consistency and logic.)
Mistakes still occur — none of us is infallible — but by the time the magazine is shipped to the printer, every effort has been made to ensure articles are accurate and truthful. This isn’t bragging or smug back-patting — this is very least that readers should expect from us.
I’m feeling especially grateful for our fact checkers at the moment, after spending the weekend absorbed in the news about the popular US public radio program This American Life and its retraction of the most-downloaded episode in its seventeen-year history. “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” broadcast in January, explores Apple’s manufacturing processes in China. The story was based on a one-man show by actor-writer Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, an agit-prop exposé of the company’s labour practices abroad.
Late last week, in an excruciating and candid episode, Ira Glass, the show’s usually unflappable host and executive producer, revealed that a reporter named Rob Schmitz had tracked down Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, Cathy Lee, and learned that Daisey had fabricated parts of his story. (Daisey had told a fact checker at TAL that he couldn’t locate Lee and the checker didn’t push further; Schmitz, after listening to the podcast and noticing several details that sounded off, found Lee following one quick Google search and a single phone call.) The retraction episode, which aired yesterday, is raw and fascinating and well worth a listen. (You can find it here.) The pauses in the tense conversation between Glass and Daisey speak volumes.
While Daisey admits he was dishonest, he maintains it was for the greater good: people wouldn’t care about the plight of Chinese workers unless he dressed up — or rather, made up — the details. Lying is his greatest offense, but his justification reveals a breathtaking contempt for the excellent, credible, reporting on Apple’s labour practices by journalists in China and elsewhere, as well as a disregard for the advocacy work on the issue by human rights activists. Just as vexing is Daisey’s disrespect for Lee: did he really think China was such a backwater, and she such a rube that his lies wouldn’t get back to her eventually? Finally, there’s Daisey’s underestimation of his audience. He offers the laziest and cheapest of evasions: the public doesn’t want truth, it wants theatre.
This might be what offends me the most: Daisey’s suggestion that non-fiction writing can’t enlighten and move an audience without resorting to lies. Like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass before him, Daisey pulled off a classic cheat. He utilized the idea of truth for emotional impact (much of the story’s potency came from the belief that it all really happened), but he didn’t trust that truth — and his own narratives skills — to carry the story. Ultimately, he failed as both a journalist and as an artist (only the latter of which he now claims to be).
For its part, TAL has been admirably transparent and forthcoming in acknowledging its responsibility for the deception. The show is not a news program in the strictest sense, but Daisey’s item was presented as journalism and should have been verified to those standards. TAL’s producers trusted Daisey and “went on author” (what we call it when a fact can’t be confirmed, but we trust the writer based on their credibility) in certain cases because so much of what he said did check out with other news reports and Apple’s own audit of its Chinese factories.
Journalist Craig Silverman, an indefatigable watchdog of media error, details TAL’s fact-checking missteps here. Still, after listening to Glass’s painstaking autopsy of the error, it’s difficult to feel anything other than professional and personal empathy. In the end, all I can think is there but for the grace of Gregory, Kristin, Sara, and Victoria go I.
Rachel Giese is a senior editor at The Walrus.