Just the facts, ma'am

By

As the New Yorker celebrates its 75th anniversary this week, much of the focus will quite rightly be on the articles, commentaries, short stories, cartoons, and cover art.

But I'd like to celebrate the magazine's tradition of accuracy.

Not a headline or sound bite goes by me without making me wonder what our news would be like if it had to be submitted, in advance, to the scrutiny of the fact-checkers at The New Yorker.

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When I read of presidential candidates trading accusations about misleading statements and misrepresentations, I imagine what our political process might be like if every accusation had to be accurate, if every vilification had to be verified. The candidates might say less, but there'd be a lot more to take note of and think about.

When I hear of yet another failed space mission, a dead-on-arrival interplanetary probe, a wayward satellite, a malfunctioning telescope or camera, I imagine what our space program could be accomplishing if fact-checkers were on the job.

When I hear of the glut of misinformation that litters the information super-highway; when I hear tales of specious and spurious assertions, analyses, and advisories, I wish that some Internet whiz-kid would develop a "checker chip" to detect deceptions.

Some might call all this fact-checking censorship; some might call it unnecessarily conservative. It would surely be more compassionate.

It's a tradition that continues quietly amid political campaigns volleying charges and countercharges about distortions, misrepresentations, and lies.

The New Yorker established and has maintained painstaking procedures for checking the accuracy of what it publishes. The checking department staffers inspect every line of editorial text (cartoon captions, too) to identify facts to be verified.

For almost 19 years, as editorial counsel, it was my job to vet all the proposed editorial content with an eye to assertions, characterizations, and descriptions that might defame, invade privacy, or infringe copyright, or other rights. It was one of the best jobs a lawyer could have: I got paid to read The New Yorker.

I had one of the best jobs a lawyer in publishing could have because The New Yorker paid eight to 12 extraordinarily bright people to verify facts.

"You must be the new lawyer," was the unenthusiastic greeting I received at the reception desk when I arrived for my first day on the job. I wore a three-piece gray-flannel suit of the Ivy-League persuasion. My starched white button-down-collar shirt and hand-tied bow tie completed the picture.

The office manager was covering for the receptionist on that inclement Monday morning. She wore bluejeans and a nondescript sweatshirt. She took me to her office, which served as personnel-payroll-pettycash-maintenance clearinghouse in addition to being a de facto nursing station and travel agency. She hoisted piles of galleys and page proofs to one side or the other, and made a space for me to fill out the new employee forms - such as they were.

The weightiest portion of the new-employee packet was a sheaf of 8 1/2-by-14-inch sheets of paper bearing columns of words; acceptable spellings and acceptable usages were noted. Accompanying these columns were pages of grammar and style rules. Along with the style manual, I was given the "Checkers' Guide," which - pecked out on an Underwood - amounted to a modest attempt to explain a rigorous art form.

The art form was grounded in a reverence - for factual accuracy. Facts had to be verified, and sometimes corrected, in time to meet deadlines.

The make-up crew used scissors, paste, and push-pins - plus keen eyes, steady hands, facility with arithmetic and geometry, and an aesthetic sense - to lay out the cartoons, captions, and columns of text in exquisite lines, all by deadline. Many of make-up's feats involved the incorporation of checking changes into columns that had already been pinned down; into pages that had already been pasted up.

The checkers could give quiz-show contestants a run for their money. They were indeed some of the best and the brightest. They knew how to find reliable information; they knew how to make their way through mounds and mounds of paper - scientific, historical, governmental, legal - to the salient facts, formulae, data, premises, proofs, provisions, and conclusions. They spoke with head librarians, chief researchers, desk officers at embassies, media relations specialists everywhere. And what's more, they knew how to verify information with cautious - even suspicious and uncooperative - subjects and sources. Quite often, even suspicious and antagonistic subjects - defrauders, polluters, politicians - and reluctant sources gave the checkers credit for being conscientious, well-informed, and fair.

While The New Yorker has been through a lot in the last 15 years, the checking department continues to operate at the same high level. And so, perhaps, it should be cloned.

* Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1994. He currently teaches writing at Quinnipiac College School of Law, in Hamden, Conn.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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