Apr 25, 2012
THE METHOD: The New York Times Magazine’s Andrew Goldman on fact-checking
Andrew Goldman, the “Talk” columnist at The New York Times Magazine, may be one of the shittiest fact-checkers in history, or at least, he seems to think so. When he came to New York City in 1996, he snagged a plumb checking gig at New York magazine that lasted all of one week. ”I was a disaster. I was just given a highlighter, but I had no idea what to do with it, so I highlighted everything. I was like fact-checking the word ‘is’! It was impossible.”
After pissing off editors with his artless digging–including Ariel Kaminer, who’s ethics column, until her recent departure, sat only pages away from Goldman’s own in the Times magazine–he wasn’t called back. Since that fumbling first start he went on to land sweet staff writing spots at Boston Magazine, The New York Observer, Radar and Tina Brown’s short-lived, but celebrated Talk.
In 2002, he ditched office-life to become a full-time freelancer. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York, Elle, The Daily Beast, Wired, and many others. Now the well-established provocateur speaks candidly with The Slant about raising the ire of Richard Gere, Gloria Allred and Larry Summers. He also confesses a reverence for “pain in the ass fact-checkers” and the vital function they serve in maintaining journalism’s integrity.
So tell us, has a checker ever saved your work from a litigious mistake?
Yeah, I got sued for a story I did for New York magazine about a midwife. (“Extreme Birth: The Fearless–Some Say Too Fearless–Leader of the Home-Birth Movement,” March 22, 2009; the subject of the piece, Cara Muhlhahn, sued for libel.) I knew that basically the lawsuit was frivolous, but I honestly believe that if the New York magazine fact-checkers hadn’t done such a good job vetting the information in the piece, the suit would probably be grinding through the legal system today. But they did such a fantastic job that the judge looked at the suit and saw that it had no merit.
You used to do those outrageous Q&As for Elle‘s “Cherchez La Femme” column, where you’d ask celebrities questions few would dare. Have any celebs ever contested a quote?
Richard Gere. I asked him: “What female costar would you never entrust with your house for a weekend?” And he said something like ‘I’d never let Julia Roberts borrow my place because she’s a night eater and she’d get crumbs everywhere.” I was very cautious with those Q&As and they were exhaustively checked. The only thing that could have gone wrong in any of those was mis-transcription. Anyways, I got a call from his publicist. He said, “Richard seems to think that he never said anything about Julia Roberts.” I was shocked. I went back and listened to the tapes and indeed he did say it. So I called the publicist back, played it for him and he said, “Would you mind if Richard called you about this?” And to his credit, Richard Gere called me back and apologized. It was just so strange because one would think that one would have remembered such a specific quote. But he had no recollection of having said it.
Good thing you taped the interview. Speaking of quotes, what’s your take on verifying them?
Two things surprised me when I started writing my column for the Times magazine. One, they insist on having an outside transcriber transcribe my interviews. They want to make sure they have a handle on the veracity of the transcript. Second, they actually call back the subjects and in full or in context read back the quotes to see if we misunderstood.
What?! Wouldn’t that compel subjects to recast their quotes?
Yes! A few subjects have seen it as an opportunity to replay the game, to change quotes that might not have been, in retrospect, as wise as they were coming out of their mouths the first time around. There’ve been a couple of cases when really difficult subjects have made it incredibly hard for everybody to get the page out by insisting on changing small things.
If you went through the columns you could probably predict who they were. Gloria Allred (the firebrand feminist attorney) was very difficult and so was Larry Summers (Obama’s former Director of the National Economic Council and current President Emeritus at Harvard University). Summers has the reputation for being extremely tough with journalists. Ultimately, the columns were fine, but revisiting quotes with subjects is not a system that I particularly love because it ends up causing trouble and hand-wringing in the office.
What’s the logic behind the policy of verifying quotes with interview subjects directly as opposed to consulting the transcript?
It’s because the quotes have been condensed and edited. To the Times’s credit, they are very rigorous about how people are quoted and that they should be quoted completely.
Noticed any differences between checkers at middle-brow magazines versus the ones at The New York Times Magazine?
At most magazines, fact-checkers are young and so much more deferential to writers. Being a researcher at the Times is well respected and a great career track. You’re a union member and you make really good money. It’s not an entry-level position, which encourages a feeling of equality between researchers and writers. And researchers aren’t clamoring to get out and become writers the way they might be at other magazines. As a freelance writer who doesn’t work inside the office, I’m in a much less powerful position when we disagree on something.
Checkers get a bad wrap at most magazines for being pests. No one likes their errors pointed out to them. It’s such an antagonistic set up. What’s your take on them?
There’s a subset of fact-checkers who, in the moment, I feel are trying to make my life miserable by checking things far too closely. Nine out of 10 times I’ll be like here’s where I found it ! Here’s where I found it! Then, the tenth time, I’m like “You’re totally right, I screwed that up.” So I find that it’s hard to consider fact-checkers annoying if they’re diligent because those are the ones who usually save you. It’s the ones you can sort of pal around with, the ones you might want to have a beer with, who check very lightly. Those guys might not be there to save you. I’ve dealt with a lot of pain in the ass fact-checkers and I’m really grateful.
Andrew Goldman lives with his wife, Robin, an interior designer, and their two sons, Henry and Charles, in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewRGoldman.