Letters from our readers.
May 22 1998 3:30 AM

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The Fact Check Is in the Mail

I disagree with my friend Jack Shafer ("Glass Houses") that fact checking doesn't protect magazines from young writers who make things up. It does, just as it protects magazines from old writers who get things wrong, no matter how many years they've been at it. When someone reports a complicated story for many weeks or even months, stuff happens--notes get confused, memories fail. Once the story is turned in, it's the job of the editor to try to separate what is clearly not true from what may or may not be. Beyond that, the fact checker is a safety net. Anything the editor doesn't catch, the checker does, from misspelled names to lapses in logic that only a fresh set of eyes can recognize.

When I was deputy editor of the New Republic during a seven-month period of apostasy in 1994, there were no fact checkers; it was before the whole Ruth Shalit business, so the fact checking "department" that Jack describes did not exist. In fact, having come from a magazine that rigorously fact checks every word of every story, I had several conversations with fellow editors about why such a system wasn't in place at TNR. No one could tell me, but more than one person mentioned an article called "Are You Completely Bald?" It had run in TNR in the late '80s, and it mocked the very notion of fact checking as unnecessary and stupid. (The co-author of that piece was Rich Blow, then a TNR intern, now an editor at George. Rich dumped Steve Glass as a George writer following last week's revelations. It's a small, small world.)

If Chuck Lane says that TNR now routinely fact checks stories, I take him at his word--but it seems inconceivable to me that someone fact checked Glass' "Hack Heaven" story if the subject of the story wasn't called and the company he worked for wasn't contacted. Simply consulting the writer's notes ain't fact checking.


--Evan SmithDeputy editor, Texas Monthly

Ahead of the Curve

In a profile of Glenn Loury ("Glenn Loury's Round Trip"), Paul Krugman writes, "Since The Bell Curve was published, it has become clear that almost everything about it was inexcusably wrong: suspect data, mistakes in statistical procedures that would have flunked a sophomore."

While this is true, it misses the most interesting aspect of that very bad book: Viewed solely on the technical merits, The Bell Curve is no worse than many more reputable examples of social science research. Many of the mistakes made by Murray and Herrnstein are made routinely by scholars across the political spectrum. The public policy literature is filled with confused causal modeling and the use of flimsy, though grandly named, variables such as "socioeconomic status" that don't mean what the authors think they do. Murray and Herrnstein are hardly alone in presenting sweeping policy conclusions based on the narrow correlations found in one limited data set. It is only the largeness of the topics explored that exposes the smallness of method Murray and Herrnstein employed. This book masquerades as reputable social science, which it is not. However, the ease with which The Bell Curve assumes this guise may be as sobering as the book itself.


--Harold Pollack

Bait and Switch

Your "Gist" on alleged payments to David Hale is so sloppy that one is tempted to assume some bias on the part of its author, Associate Editor Franklin Foer.

The statement that Caryn Mann "recovered her memory" and estimated Parker Dozhier's payments to Hale at $200,000 is contradicted by the very Salon article Foer cites to support it. Mann said that it was Dozhier who received approximately $200,000. The author's claim that she "backed down" from that number in later interviews (not cited) is thus groundless.


Foer also neglected to mention that Mann's credibility is bolstered by the FBI's decision, after a preliminary investigation of her charges, to refer them to the Justice Department.

The theory that Hale was just "hanging around Dozhier's bait shop, looking for ... handouts" is contradicted by another allegation that Foer failed to mention: Hale and Dozhier met on several occasions with American Spectator board member Stephen Boynton and David Henderson, vice president of the Spectator's funding foundation. The FBI agents who escorted Hale on each of his visits to Dozhier's bait shop should be able to testify as to whether those meetings took place; if they did not, it seems unlikely the FBI would have referred the matter to the Justice Department.

--Robert Lauriston

Franklin Foer responds: Let me answer your criticisms in order.


1) In the first Salon article, Caryn Mann makes no specific estimate of how much money Dozhier received. In the second Salon article, which came six days later, she gives the $200,000 estimate for the first time. Mann admitted to the Washington Post that the estimates she gave Salon were imprecise and inconsistent. She told the Post, "I'm not an attorney. I spent more than a year trying to forget this, and now I'm trying to remember it."

2) My piece specifically mentions the letter written by Eric Holder of the Justice Department, in which he called for a Justice Department investigation of Mann's charges.

3) The theory that Hale was simply "hanging around" Dozhier's bait shop isn't mine. I credit it to other reporters who investigated the allegations.

4) One last point: My brief piece made it amply clear that Hale was thick with the American Spectator crowd.

The Fourth Letter We Printed This Week

Why do you print so few e-mails to the editor? Is it that you actually get such a small amount of e-mail? Last week Slate printed one letter! As someone who enjoys reading this stuff, I would like to see an expansion of this area. I know you have "The Fray," which is sort of similar, but couldn't you have both?

--Mitchell Kaften

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