There was no such thing as a fact checker at the newspapers where I worked; it was a magazine craft. I did once read a funny story about that. A writer, let’s say at Newsweek, blithely wrote that “there are 000 trees in Russia,” intending for a fact checker to find out the number and fill in the 000 used as a spaceholder. This story goes on and on in great detail, but finally the person with the assignment plugged in a number that seemed a reasonable calculation based on forested area and average density of forests, and unlikely to be disproved. The article appeared. Weeks later, one of the authoritative sources the fact checker had tried rang up with the definitive answer. It was the very number that Newsweek had used, and the authoritative source authoritatively cited the Newsweek article as authority.

Until relatively recently, most newspaper stories were about things that had just happened based on the facts the reporter had just gathered, with the writer looking up the occasional related fact in the library, or “morgue” for dead clips. Speed was paramount in getting stories into the next edition, giving rise to the careers of rewrite men and women. Police reporters, for example, would phone in the facts they had gathered at the police station and people like Harry Gabbett at The Washington Post would bat out a story in time for the next edition. I don’t think Al Lewis of the Post or Jocko Nolan of the Toronto Star ever typed up a story. They literally phoned it in.

Stories requiring deeper reporting were rare and might be disparagingly regarded as “thumbsuckers,” or think pieces. Even then reporters mostly did their own research. David Broder was a rarity at the Post in that he had a researcher even while he was a national reporter in the late 1960s and early 1970s before he became a columnist.

I once served as a de facto, post facto fact checker, though. I was a junior editor on the National Desk at The Washington Post late at night after the first edition had come out. The paper’s top editors had copies delivered to their homes, where they went through them. I sometimes took calls from one or the other of them pointing out necessary corrections, which were dutifully passed along to the composing room. And once I got a call questioning a putative fact cited in an article.

Ben Gilbert, who I think was then deputy managing editor, was calling to challenge the assertion that the length of the mid-ocean ridge was 40,000 miles. That’s impossible, he said, because the diameter of Earth is less than a fifth of that length. So I whipped back to the morgue and looked it up, probably in an encyclopedia in those pre-Google days. I found that the figure was correct because that geological feature wraps around the continents beneath the seas. I triumphantly returned the call.

To the wrong person. Instead of Ben Gilbert, I phoned the managing editor, Al Friendly, and informed him that the length of the mid-ocean ridge was indeed 40,000 miles. He was, of course, baffled.

Copyright 2010, J.V. Reistrup

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