I got a call yesterday from a fact checker at The New Yorker. He was working on a piece that made reference to H.L. Mencken, and very apologetically asked me if I could perhaps help him by answering two questions (one was simple, the other subtle). I told him that Mencken would have approved of his labors, which is true. Mencken did quite a bit of writing for The New Yorker in the Thirties and Forties, and referred admiringly to its fact-checking department as “Ross’ goons” (Harold Ross being, of course, the magazine’s founding editor and resident tutelary spirit).
That call filled me with nostalgia. As anyone knows who’s been in journalism for more than the past 20 minutes or so, fact checking is an increasingly lost art. Time was when many magazines–if not most–rigorously checked every factual assertion made in every story they published. When I was writing profiles for Mirabella nine years ago, the checkers even required me to give them my interview tapes. But by the time I got to Time, the rigor had loosened considerably. My Time stories about the arts were “self-checked,” a wonderfully Orwellian euphemism meaning that they weren’t checked at all–it was assumed that I knew what I was talking about (though occasionally a copy editor would query me about odd-looking names).
By then, of course, the whole system was unraveling, at Time and everywhere else. I remember the black day when Time actually closed its in-house library, a cost-cutting measure that filled the writers of the magazine with dread. They knew, in the words of “About Last Night”‘s favorite novelist, that we should never be again as we were. And we weren’t.
All this fond reminiscence will doubtless amuse, if not astound, those readers who grew up under the aspect of the World Wide Web. Nowadays, most of the journalists I know do much of their research on line, and their first stop is Google rather than the nearest library. What’s more, I think many of us tend to reflexively take for granted the accuracy of what we see on the Web–and in the blogosphere, that great echo chamber driven by hyperlinks, such an assumption can lead very quickly to inaccuracy, grief, and libel suits.
I am, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, decidedly pro-blogosphere, for all the reasons that all of us are constantly touting on our blogs. In particular, I love the combination of immediacy and freedom that comes with unedited self-publishing, and I’m also fairly comfortable with it, in part because I’ve been a newspaper and magazine editor and so have learned over the years how to clean up my own copy. It also helps that the Gene Fairy made me a near-perfect speller (though I am chronically deaf to the more nuanced differences between “which” and “that,” a problem about which I make an unnecessary point of warning all editors unlucky enough to have to work on my stuff).
Even so, I’m well aware, at times painfully so, that I’m working without a net. Not always–sometimes I write and publish an item too quickly to think about it–but at some point in the process I generally remind myself that there’s nobody to backstop me but you, the readers, and that you aren’t necessarily rooting for me. If you’ve followed the Gregg Easterbrook imbroglio, you know that in the highly politicized and present-oriented world of blogging, one bad mistake can cause the sharks to circle within hours.
All of which went through my mind after I hung up on that nice fellow from The New Yorker, a magazine that (which?) still believes in taking institutional responsibility for the facts it publishes. I know, I know, things ain’t what they used to be, and I, too, have found misspelled proper names in its pages of late. I also know that fact-checking is no kind of panacea. As every writer knows, a large pile of scrupulously checked facts can add up to one great big honking lie. And all things being equal, I’d rather bear the responsibility for what I write than cede it to an editor who may or may not be capable of shouldering it.
Nevertheless, I miss old-fashioned editing, just as I miss the common culture that has been largely replaced by the libertarian regime of choice, even though I’m well aware of the defects of the systems with which I grew up. There are no absolute earthly goods, and every virtue has its reciprocal defect. Or, to put it in American, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Me, I choose freedom, and quite happily, too–if not always comfortably.