Glass Dismissed

Glass Dismissed

Glass Dismissed

Policy made plain.
May 17 1998 3:00 AM

Glass Dismissed

Stephen Glass—the young journalist fired this week by the NewRepublic for wholesale fabrication of quotes, anecdotes, people, institutions, and almost every other element of his highly entertaining articles (see " Glass Houses," by Jack Shafer, in this issue of Slate)—also has written for Slate, among other magazines. He was co-author of a January 1997 article questioning Amazon.com's claim it is the world's biggest bookstore. Rereading that article a few days ago, when the Glass story broke, we were relieved to see that it does not contain the kind of long narrative anecdotes that were Glass' specialty as a fiction writer. It does, though, contain quotes that could be phony and data (such as how long it took him to order a book from Amazon vs. Borders) that are impossible to confirm. Perhaps fortunately, as it turns out, the article's conclusions about the relative merits of online book ordering, book superstores, and local bookshops—as measured by price, time spent ordering, and speed of delivery—were a mixed bag. So it's unclear who, if anyone, would have a grievance if Glass made up his part of the results. But it shouldn't be hard to believe that we're sorry we used him.

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A word about fact checking. Several hindsight artists have been quoted in the press saying that the NewRepublic's fact checkers should have caught Glass. At least two of Slate's editors are on record, though, deriding the institution of the "fact checking department." And Slate does not have a fact checking department or "fact checkers" so labeled. We do have a group of people whose duties include making sure our writers are as accurate as possible. They are called "writers." And we have another group of people who skeptically examine what our writers produce and try to catch errors of fact (or of logic or analysis or spelling or taste or—in the case of poetry—rhyme and meter). These people are called "editors." What we do not have is people whose job it is to duplicate the writers' research from scratch.

Writers can turn out to be pathological deceivers, like Stephen Glass was. But it seems absurd to institutionalize the assumption that your writers can't be trusted. (Pathological deceivers may also seek employment as fact checkers. As Shafer points out, the organizer of the NewRepublic's fact-checking department is none other than Glass.) If the problem of serious factual errors by writers is that common, the solution is to get a new set of writers—not to hire a separate group of people to reinvent the wheel. Errors do get into Slate, of course. But our track record is, we believe, as good as that of publications with elaborate "fact checking" machinery. Knock on wood.

How can that be? One reason is that writers and editors—well, especially writers, in the view of Slate's editors—are sloppier about facts when they know they've got a safety net, so the two effects cancel each other out. (Just as some economists argue that seat belts don't really save lives because drivers, knowing they're protected by seat belts, drive more recklessly.) An elaborate fact checking apparatus not only makes writers and editors complacent about the facts: Hubris—justified or not—about accuracy on tiny, often unimportant, facts makes writers and editors complacent about the larger issue of whether the article makes any sense. (Actually, we don't believe that stuff about seat belts for a minute. But we do believe it about fact checkers. This kind of logical inconsistency is a perfect example of the kind of error the most elaborate fact checking system will not catch.)

More important—and funnier—is what fact checkers spend much of their time doing, which is looking for facts in newspapers, via the Web or the Lexis-Nexis electronic database. Newspapers do not have fact checkers! No, not even the New York Times. Yet a fact confirmed in the New York Times is considered checked. And rightly so, since the Times is generally quite accurate. But if un-fact-checked information is good enough for the fact checking department, who needs it?

Hot Tip

As the Dow Jones industrial average soars past 15,000, Americans from Brooklyn, on the northwest tip of Manhattan Island, to Boise, the capital of North Dakota, are pouring their life's savings into the stock market. The warnings of Mr. Greenjeans, the chairman of the Federal Deserve Board (which controls the nation's money supply through a spigot located in Wisconsin, or "the Cheese State," as its license plates assert), have been ignored. Can there be any doubt that increased rates of flu and asthma are the inevitable result? (We have no proof of this, but a fella in the next seat on the airplane the other day was completely persuasive. Take our word for it.) So, what next? Clearly the trend toward plastic living-room furniture will continue, and Jesse Helms will abandon his practice of conducting Senate hearings in the nude. The famous Volcano D'Amour, in central Ohio, will erupt, pouring lava into the neighboring states of Texas, New Hampshire, and Canada.

SlateFamily News (Honest)

Princeton University Press has published From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role, written—in his sober moments—by Slate's wine and alcohol columnist, Fareed Zakaria. Fareed moonlights from his imbibing duties at Slate by serving as managing editor of Foreign Affairs, so you may well imagine that his sober moments are all too many and all too sober. But sobriety has its charms. The New York Times praised From Wealth to Power as "provocative and full of implications for the world today."

Rachel Klayman has produced a daughter, Lucy Rose Edelstein, with the assistance of her husband, Slate's movie critic David Edelstein. Critics were unanimous in their praise of the production and took special note of Edelstein's role. "Outstanding" (Edelstein, Slate).

Michael Kinsley is a columnist, and the founding editor of Slate.