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Tag Archive: Letter from China

These American Lies

The agony and ecstasy of fact checking
RetractedThis American Life episode No. 460: “Retraction

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. (more…)

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Posted in Media  •  11 Comments

Party Like It’s 1949

October 1st marked the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. To celebrate the occasion, the Communist Party organized a giant pat on the back for the local populace. It’s a gesture unseen since, well, last year’s Olympic opening ceremonies. In China’s largest-ever showing of military might, tanks and lorries carrying nuclear weapons rumbled through downtown Beijing, fighter jets roared overhead, and a 2,000-strong military band played martial tunes throughout. About 30,000 lucky guests were invited to watch the spectacle. I wasn’t one of them, but tried to crash the parade anyway. This is my account of how it went down.

9:30 a.m. — I leave my apartment in search of a coffee before cycling to the parade area. The perimeter of the Workers’ Stadium, which was built fifty years ago to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the PRC, is lined with hundreds of volunteers this morning, all wearing yellow shirts and red armbands. The Starbucks across the street is closed, and one of the volunteers tells me I can’t lock up my bike on the sidewalk. No problem: there’s an open McDonald’s within sight. My Egg McMuffin combo is delicious.

10:00 a.m. — There’s an armoured personnel carrier and riot squad with machine guns on the roundabout over the 2nd Ring Road, blocking the path from my place to the parade route. Fellow journalist Kit Gillet and I hop off our bikes and snap photos. “This will be one of those things in China when they know exactly what they can and can’t do with us [foreigners]. They won’t let us cross the line, but they’ll let us take pictures,” Kit says. “Of course, we’re going to try to cross the line.”

10:25 a.m. — A few hundred people are gathered at the intersection of the 2nd Ring and Jianguomen Dajie. Rumour has it we’ll be able to catch a bit of the parade from here. Police attempt clearing the road. “Zou le, zou le, zou le!” they order, which means, “Go, go, go!” The crowd shuffles to the left and right. Nobody leaves.

10:38 a.m. — Kit and I ride toward Tiananmen Square through the hutong alleyways. We are thwarted at every turn as we try to get closer to the action. I can hear cheers in the distance and feel like I’m in a massive line-up outside an awesome nightclub, knowing I’ll never get in.

11:00 a.m. — We cycle down a deserted road on our way to Wangfujing Street, a shopping thoroughfare near Tiananmen Square. Wangfujing is blocked off and filled with red balloons. My roommate Tom, who is watching the parade at a bar, texts me to say there are tanks rolling by Tiananmen and fighter jets have taken off for the coming flyover.

11:04 a.m. — You really couldn’t ask for better weather today. Clear skies, no wind, no clouds. That’s probably the result of advance cloud seeding — i.e., shooting silver iodide into the sky to produce rain. Coincidentally, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says SASK, for my home province of Saskatchewan. A friend later points out that cloud seeding was invented there. (According to Wikipedia, he’s wrong.)

11:15 a.m. — We’re a little closer to the Forbidden City now, with a great view of the flyover. I see bombers, fighter jets, helicopters, the whole deal. The last group of planes blows plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke — an odd choice for an intimidating show of military strength. I’d hoped for some loop-de-loops and other tricks, but nothing like that happens. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has some work to do before the next celebration like this in 2019.

11:23 a.m. — Running out of options, we stop by a store that sells police supplies and inquire about sirens, helmets, badges, and billyclubs. The prices are fair, but we decide that impersonating Beijing cops is probably a bad idea.

11:47 a.m. — After trying, unsuccessfully, to access to a hotel rooftop bar that overlooks the parade, we bike toward the backside of the Forbidden City with the idea of climbing the hill in Jinshan Park. I’m stopped by a police officer who says, in English, “Stop. Forbidden.” He’s referring not to the Forbidden City, but to the road behind it. “Forbidden? I think that’s Forbidden,” I say, and point toward the City. He’s too clever for my ruse. “Both forbidden,” he replies.

12:00 p.m. — Tom texts to say there are tanks near Worker’s Stadium. Kit and I head in that direction.

12:15 p.m. — We catch the last of the tanks from the sidewalk outside the Starbucks where I’d tried to get coffee earlier. It’s still closed. We give up trying to watch any more of the parade.

8:00 pm — After the morning’s frustrations, we successfully made our way to a friend’s barbecue in a hutong neighbourhood. Right now I’m drinking a bottle of warm Tsingtao beer and watching fireworks on a grainy television. Happy diamond anniversary, China!

(Photos by Mitch Moxley)

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Posted in Letter from China  •  No Comments
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