What Is Fact, My Friends?

Filed under:Language Barrier,Need a Good Editor? — posted by Anwyn on May 24, 2007 @ 9:40 pm

Gerard Van der Leun discusses the absence of fact checking in publishing. I’m shocked, shocked, that there are copy editors out there less rigorous and stringent about fact checking than I am.

No I’m not. What I am surprised at is the existence of a group called “Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America” and its status as a CBS shareholder. This group is about to get all demanding and shirty with Jimmy Carter about little things like “errors” about the Middle East in his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Van der Leun notes:

The Carter book is chock-a-block full of lies and distortions and weasel phrases that are the hallmark of the sad and irritating career of the worst President the United States has had and the worst it is likely to have. But lies are as much a part of Carter’s post-Whitehouse career as the phrase “I’ll never lie to you” was part of his initial appeal. That numerous associates of the risible “Carter Center” have resigned because this time the lies were too thick to be swallowed smoothly in exchange for a check is well documented.

But to think that Simon & Schuster are going to spend one penny on a “fact-checking” system or a “code of ethics” is simply foolish. Book publishers don’t do that and not because, as was stated in the same article:

“It’s not realistic,” the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, Sara Nelson, said. The call for publishers to have “full-on fact checking” does not make economic sense, she said, as they publish a lot of books.

Publishers won’t do it because they not only don’t have to (it would be costly, but not nearly as much as the millions they lavish on their pet authors), but because fact-checking our many fanciful and forthrightly lying authors would not be in the publishers’ interests.

It’s not totally economic. Many facts can be checked in 30 seconds of web searching and probably wouldn’t add that much to the money being paid a freelance copy editor, and as Van der Leun points out, even at maximum expense it couldn’t compete with millions paid to celebrity authors. The non-economic problem is twofold: even for the “attack dog” copy editors Van der Leun mentions, it’s not realistic to expect us to expend the mental energy to question every fact in the book, which leaves us checking only the ones we know or sense to be wrong. Which leads us to the second part of the problem. Van der Leun:

Publishers know when authors are lying but, as long as the lies map to the publishing industry’s internal view of itself, that’s just fine with them. It’s not about being “true,” but being “true to your school.”

I disagree. It’s worse than that: in a book with ideological slant that caters to the editors’ worldview, they can no longer tell fact from opinion or even from fiction, because if lies fit in nicely in with their worldview then, looping back to the first part of the problem, it does not occur to the editor to question the “fact,” much less check it. Something has to seem wrong before it gets checked; “if it sounds good, print it” becomes the de facto rule.

Celebrity authors are all well and good; the author as luminary in the editors’ worldview just makes it that much more unlikely that they will question his facts. Fact checking exists, but a fact needs to seem like it should be checked before it will be. Simple as that. If the distortions and lies are simply part of the worldview a particular editor has been listening to for years, they pass as part of the wallpaper, never noticed or remarked.

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace