A book review from the New York Times gives me a new role model. The book is “The Lifespan of a Fact” by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. It’s about the struggle to get an essay by D’Agata ready for publication in The Believer. Fingal was an intern fact-checker assigned to the essay. D’Agata believed that he was writing Truth and Art and shouldn’t be too bound by Facts. Fingal pushed back with questions and endured verbal abuse from D’Agata as he did his job, as reviewer Jennifer B. McDonald describes it. “The book presents, line by line, D’Agata’s original essay, as well as Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations,” McDonald writes. I haven’t read the book, but I expect to soon. I am interested in the role Fingal played and in his persistence in pointing out the problems in D’Agata’s work.
It often does take nerve for a fact-checker or a copy editor to point out the holes and problems in a story, especially when the writer is a star enamored of his own writing. We used to get stories years ago on the old News & Observer desk that we referred to as having “holy water sprinkled” on them. We copy editors were not to touch a word without explicit permission from the editor or the writer. It took a brave copy editor to speak up and say that the story needed work or had factual errors. I understand how writers want to shape a story and how they work hard to get the sound just right, but it really is much better for a true story to be factually correct. We have seen time and again the problems when writers are not challenged on facts.
Today with the crunch of time — fewer people doing more work in almost every publishing platform — it is most important for those near the end of the line to keep their skepticism sharp. It helps everyone involved in the publishing to have more credibility and helps the reader/viewer/listener to get a better understanding of Truth and Fact.
Update: As a comment below notes, “On the Media” interviewed the two authors. I heard the podcast this afternoon. It’s worth a listen. See the link in the comment.