May 23, 2007

The Factchecking Facts

Writer (left) & Editor (right)

"Fact-checking in publishing." It's such a quaint notion. It thrives on the belief that if publishers checked the facts, the truth would out. But on many levels, most publishers -- especially book publishers -- don't want to check the facts and, truth be told, seldom do. Book publishers are not interested in truth, they are interested in stories; stories that sell.

Having worked for more than 30 years in book and magazine publishing, I had many chances to view the "fact-checking" element at work in both fields and, although it was rigorous in magazines, it was close to non-existent in books. Even the much-vaunted "fact checking at the New Yorker" is pretty much a myth at this point; the kind of myth that lets the current phase of The New Yorker slide on by as a "dependable" source. But it really is about 50% BS now. And for book publishers it always was 95% BS.

Today's New York Sun published an article, Carter Publisher May Be Accused Of Damaging CBS's Reputation, which notes:

"A CBS subsidiary, Simon & Schuster, will be accused of damaging the reputation of its parent company by publishing Mr. Carter's book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Carol Greenwald, the treasurer of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a CBS shareholder, plans to criticize the publisher at the meeting..... According to a statement shown to The New York Sun, Ms. Greenwald, who calls Mr. Carter's book "error-filled," plans to ask that a fact-checking system be set up to prevent material errors in books Simon & Schuster publishes and that a code of ethics be adopted for its publishing division."
I wish Ms. Greenwald well in her quest, but would advise her to pack a lunch, dress warmly, and take plenty of water on her quest because she'll be gone for a long, long time.

That's not because she's wrong. It is because she's right.

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. 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."

In addition, every book contract has, as part of the boilerplate, an indemnity clause that pushes all risk off onto the author. And since lies of the kind told by Carter aren't of necessity slander or libel per se, (One can libel a Jew, but not the Jews.) the risk is negligible. It is certainly low enough that when a former President comes calling with his tatterdemalion quilt of spleen and blather, that man is welcomed with open arms and a fat advance check. After all, he's not only an ex-President, he builds houses for the poor! One nail at a time! See Jimmy swing the hammer! What a saint! In addition, he's against the US continuing the War with Iran that he helped start! Super Saint!

Having worked at a publishing company during the time when it published two of the Carters' books as well as numerous others, I know just a little bit about what goes on in the process. Not so much for the Carter books, but for book publishing and "fact checking" in general.

In the mid to late 1980s I worked as Senior Editor and Director of Trade Paperback publishing for Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston. During that period the house published Jimmy Carter's "The Blood of Abraham" and Roselynn Carter's "First Lady from Plains." As I was not the editor, I have no recollection at this remove of how fact-checking that book was handled other than the overall impression that it was polite, deferential, and probably about as intrusive as carressing a cuticle with a Q-tip. Both books were "exciting" to the house, and both were inevitably touted by their editor as "wonderful!" (We heard a lot of that word in those days about books from Presidents and perverts both.)

A President's book of any sort is a major coup for a publishing house and a publishing house will do just about anything to get and to keep such an author -- it will even, gladly, lose money. Lots of money.

This is because such a book inevitably adds what it called "luster to the list" and also locks in a major review from the New York Times [The Holy Grail of money losing books and authors everywhere]. Since few editors have shares of the actual profits a book makes, status and the sniffing about for status via famous authors is epidemic in the profession.

In addition, book publishing on a day-by-day basis is pretty boring stuff and a visit by an ex-President with all the Secret Service stuff and actual "armed guards" on the premises gets the pulse pounding in even the hardest-hearted Publisher.

So editors can count on being able to sign up just about anything written by (or by the ghost writers for) an ex-President. It's a no-brainer and has resulted in no end of brain-dead books. But are they factual? Doubtful. After all, what an editor most wants to do when he or she has an ex-President on their list is to keep them there. So will the house until the losses from what are mostly big book bombs add up into multiple millions when the President will, sadly, be allowed to move his work on to the next Publisher just panting for some lukewarm ex-Presidential pap.

That doesn't mean you can't fact-check a President's book if you are an editor. You can. (But it would be stupid since it would irritate the ex-President.) Even though there is no specific function in publishing houses for fact-checking, almost every editor has a list of free-lance copy-editors. Most of these are very deferential forelock-tugging types, but a few -- and these the editor holds in reserve -- are attack dogs for facts. Semi-psychotic, they are passionate about getting it right and they don't care who or what they have to run over to get it right. They are an author's worst nightmare.

To unleash the "attack-dog copy editor" on an author, an editor has to have a very bad feeling about the factual basis of the material he is handling. Either that or a neurotic attachment to the truth and a need to knock a recalcitrant author back a peg or two. Even book editors have a limit to how much BS they can eat. But in no case does this need for truth apply to an ex-President lest the editor find himself free-lancing soap jingles from Hoboken with his lunch expense account cruelly cut off.

Publishing always was an old-boys club even though it has, with its salary structure, pretty much become an old-girls club. And, with rare exceptions (Judith Regan, Regnery), it is almost completely a liberal/left enclave. Editors know the unwritten rules and are expected to abide by them to advance the current "narrative." If they do not they find themselves in the strange state called "failure to thrive." The sheer number and tone of books currently published and about to be published about the sitting President leave little doubt about the commitment to fact-checking anything. (Yes, I know about books on "science," reference books, puzzle books, books about math and other such that require correct facts, but those are obviously not the type under discussion. What's going on here are books that map to and support the secular religion of Publishing. Those others are about making money and making money is not really what most editors are about. If it was they'd take up some more lucrative line of work.)

The net result is that, save when there is a question of dates or geography or a legal issue, I don't think Jimmy Carter has ever been questioned about his "facts" by an editor -- or any other agent of a book publisher -- in his life. The result, over time, has to be that Carter has come to expect that publishers will swallow just about any amount of swill he may care to slosh in their trough. And he's right. They will and they did.

After all, there's hardly ever any downside to printing lies unless they start to border on slander and libel. The publishers always have a legal reading for those issues. And even if one does slip through and some sort of legal unpleasantness arises, the publisher can always fall back on the Indemnity clause that is standard boilerplate in all book contracts. Again, this clause simply states that the author warrants everything in the book is true and undertakes to carry all expenses associated with any lawsuit that might happen. The publisher walks away dusting off his hands and pocketing any profits. That's just the way it is.

Magazines, since they publish many things under a compilation copyright, have to be a bit more careful. If they are perceived to have deep pockets they are lawsuit bait and usually have several lying around.

The most passionate magazine about fact-checking I ever worked for was Penthouse. We always had any number of lawsuits cooking no matter how hard the articles were vetted nor how rigorously the facts were checked. We were seldom beaten in any of the lawsuits precisely because our fact-checking was so draconian, but that didn't stop people from trying. Having an insane publisher who believed in magic cancer cures, aliens from outer space, and that female urination was a turn on didn't make our burden any lighter.

Indeed, since we did spend so much time fact-checking and getting things right, one of the favorite morning coffee pass times was reading the always amusing crow-eating corrections in the New York Times or running a few obvious boners from The New Yorker through Lexis/Nexis to see just how stupid the "legendary fact-checkers" had become since the death of Mr. Shawn. The Tina Brown years were especially rich, but I have no doubt the current regime with its endless touting of Seymour Hersh's tainted and unsourced revelations has pretty much put paid to the "fact checkers." It is hard to check the "facts" supplied by unnamed and fanciful sources. Besides, the US government and the Pentagon are as unlikely to sue the New Yorker for libel as Israel is to sue Carter, so what's the worry?

In these times, there is so much information rushing out so quickly from so many sources, that the expectations of a Ms. Greenwald for "a fact-checking system be set up to prevent material errors in books" so that the current and future lies of a hypocrite like Carter will be exposed before publication is just fanciful.

The only mechanism set up to expose the lies of people like Carter is the blogosphere which can still "fact check your ass;" which in Carter's case it did admirably. But that still has to happen after the fact of publication. No publisher in his right mind is going to fact-check a Carter before publication. It would be Suicide-by-New-York-Times-Book-Review on the one hand, and depressing on the other to admit just what sort of political porn you were about peddle to the world. At Penthouse we at least knew what we were doing.

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Posted by Vanderleun at May 23, 2007 3:50 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Human Nature! Amazing, the LIE is sacred

Posted by: jeffersonranch at May 25, 2007 9:19 AM

Human Nature! Amazing, the LIE is sacred

Posted by: jeffersonranch at May 25, 2007 9:20 AM

...And unfortunately, has proven to save one's ass and political career since the Clinton's perfected the art.

Posted by: MarkH at May 25, 2007 12:17 PM

Excellent post, Mr. Vanderleun!
I didn't know that book publishers basically did no fact checking whatsoever.
Makes sense I guess, since the publisher isn't responsible for lies anyway.
It doesn't help their credibility, but as you say, they have a target audience and their own agenda and obviously they aren't concerned about gaining the potential customers who hold truth to be sacrosanct.

Some magazines have gotten a lot worse than they used to be, or maybe I just notice it more nowdays.
In addition to the New Yorker, Time stands out, and even some "scientific" mags, such as the Smithsonian, which I have cancelled.
I expect many magazines will get worse unless they are sued more often than they are.

Posted by: Ben USN (Ret) at May 26, 2007 4:24 AM

It seems as if there are two ways to tackle this.

First, depending on how likely one publishing house is to shaft another, one editor could sick his attack-dog fact checkers on a Presidential book published by another company, and use the resulting firestorm to drum up exposure and sales.

Two, a sufficiently wealthy individual could sue a publisher for false advertising for printing the book as non-fiction, with the implied imprimatur that the content was accurate.

Any thoughts?


Posted by: BRD at May 27, 2007 2:43 PM
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