Despite Malcolm Trial, Editors Elsewhere Vouch for Accuracy of Their Work
By Deirdre Carmody
May 30, 1993
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Dismayed by the disclosures that have emerged in the libel trial of Janet Malcolm and The New Yorker magazine, many writers and editors fear that testimony about what they view as inappropriate journalistic practices will damage the credibility of all newspapers and magazines.
Ms. Malcolm has been accused by Jeffrey M. Masson of fabricating five quotations in her two-part 48,500-word profile of the psychoanalyst, which was published in The New Yorker in 1983.
In the course of the trial, which started in Federal District Court in San Francisco on May 6, Ms. Malcolm has described putting quotation marks around words that she had rearranged and compressing long interviews that occurred over several months and representing them as a single conversation over lunch.
"Janet Malcolm gives journalism a very, very bad name," said Allan Mayer, editor in chief of Buzz, a magazine about Los Angeles culture and styles of life. "When she says journalists do something, she means she does it." Location? Location? Location?
Journalists are also troubled by the cavalier tone of some of the testimony. For instance, Gardner Botsford, Ms. Malcolm's editor who is also her husband, testified last week that it was he who changed the locale of the central monologue from a Berkeley pier -- where Ms. Malcolm had placed it in her first draft, despite not having been there -- to the restaurant Chez Panisse, to simplify the article's narrative line. When Mr. Botsford was asked by Mr. Masson's lawyer whether he had asked Ms. Malcolm where the conversation had occurred, he replied, "I never cared that much."
In interviews, writers and editors associated with more than 20 magazines said most credible publications would frown on such practices as Ms. Malcolm's. Most magazines, the writers and editors said, do not place considerations of style and the creation of a coherent narrative above the accuracy of facts or quotations. Indeed, many of them have exacting fact-checking procedures that, at the least, check verifiable facts and in many cases retrace the writer's steps, calling people who have been quoted and checking if not the exact words, at least the sense of quotations.
"Research can be a pain in the neck, and facts can get in the way of remarkable stories, but we see fact checking as the price we need to pay to keep faith with the reader and keep the faith of the reader," said Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, editor in chief of Reader's Digest, which has a 20-member fact-checking department and which requires writers to turn in annotated source lists after finishing their articles. Exception Stands Out
One magazine that stands out as an exception in fact checking is The New Republic. "There is no formal fact checking at The New Republic, but it has been as accurate and as truthful as The New Yorker," said Michael Kinsley, the senior editor. "The trouble with The New Yorker is they don't have truth checkers."
An interesting aspect of the Malcolm case is that The New Yorker fact checkers have long had a reputation of being the best in the business. In fact a 1984 staff memorandum unequivocally condemns some of the practices of which Ms. Malcolm is now being accused. It said: "We do not permit composites. We do not rearrange events. We do not create conversations."
Officials at The New Yorker declined to discuss its fact checking or its policies about what is permissible in the use of quotations. "We really are not talking at all at this time about the policies of The New Yorker and the Malcolm case," a spokeswoman, Maurie Perl, said. "The case is in litigation, and our lawyers are suggesting we not talk about it." Can Be Too Literal
Mr. Kinsley's comment about the need for truth checkers points out a potential hole in fact checking. Even meticulous checking of verifiable facts can fail to pinpoint errors like the kind of reordering of events that Ms. Malcolm has conceded.
"The worst fact checking is literal fact checking that manages to overlook the fact that the context is misleading or that the person interviewed was not asked the right question," said Edward Kosner, editor of New York magazine, which has four to five fact checkers. "I also think you can trim quotes. The point is to preserve the reality and the accuracy of the quote, and not to doctor it. There is a certain gritty difference between the way people speak and cleaned-up stories."
Magazines have varying degrees of diligence in their fact checking. The Atlantic Monthly, which has three full-time checkers, goes so far as to fact-check poetry, and even then some items can be missed. The associate editor in charge of fact checking, Sue Parilla, remembers an instance when a car buff complained that a poem referred to a certain car that could not have existed in the year referred to in the poem.
Unlike many magazines, The Atlantic Monthly calls people who have been quoted and reads them back their quotations. "We are not trying to catch them unawares," Ms. Parilla said. "It doesn't serve anyone's purposes to misquote people. I have had many times when the person who was quoted wanted to change the quote to improve it, sharpen it. When authors hear how a quote has been clarified, they rarely mind." 'Not a Good Policy'
Many editors and writers feel differently, however, and say reading back quotations is tantamount to giving people a chance to manipulate the quotation, change the wording and put themselves in a more favorable light.
"It's just not a good policy to let someone vet quotes," said the editor in chief of Esquire, Terry McDonell. "At Esquire, the factual substance of quotes will be read back. But the actual verbatim nature of the quotes will not be read back, unless that was part of a prearranged deal."
The head of research at Esquire, Mark Warren, said his researchers routinely asked writers for their notes, tapes and transcripts to check the veracity of quotations and whether they are in context of the conversation. Mr. McDonell said that in several instances articles had not made it through the fact checking and had not been published. "That's very expensive," he added.
Because of deadline pressures daily newspapers do not employ a separate fact-checking process. Instead, writers and, later, copy editors are instructed to verify facts, especially those that can be checked against standard reference materials. Writers' Safety Net
The New York Times Magazine, which has four staff fact checkers, has a general policy of not checking quotations, in part because so many New York Times reporters write for the magazine.
"Though our general policy is not to check quotes, we can in talking to sources about information that pertains to them often get a pretty strong sense of whether a quote in a piece is essentially accurate or not," said Renee Michael, research supervisor for the magazine.
Writers regard fact checking as a safety net that will catch errors that they have missed. They are less enthusiastic when they find that their pieces have been substantially changed. One New York freelance writer who would speak only on condition of anonymity said he was astonished when he got back galley proofs where his quotations had been replaced by ones elicited by the fact checkers.
David K. Shipler, a former reporter for The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, remembers writing an article from Moscow for Us magazine when it was owned by the New York Times Company. The article was about the reunion of a mother and her daughter, who had immigrated years before to the United States. The reunion, which Mr. Shipler did not witness, was in private at the airport in Moscow. What's in a Hot Dog?
"The piece was edited, and there was something they put in the piece that was not true, so I called the editor and told him," Mr. Shipler said.
Mr. Shipler did not see the article again until it was published. The offending passage had been removed, but the beginning had been replaced by a scene that was not only made up but, as anyone who knew the airport would realize, that could simply not have happened as described.
"I was really boiling," Mr. Shipler said.
There is also the problem of literal-mindedness.
Denise Grady, a freelance writer who formerly worked for Time, remembers an article in Time in 1988 on vegetarians in which a child pointed to a hot dog and asked his mother what it was. "A dead pig," answered the mother, who disapproved of eating meat.
But the fact checker called food experts to establish that hot dogs were made of beef, not pork. The checker then called the reporter. "We are changing it to a dead cow," she said.
The quotation appeared the way the mother said it.
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