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So it appears that Lehrer spliced together two snippets of dialogue from 2007, added value by transforming the somewhat clinical “20” and “96” into the more poetic “twenty” and “ninety-six,” then transported the whole shebang back to 2002.
Chapter 2 of How We Decide yields another example that shows how easy it has become to fact-check a writer’s work now. In it, Lehrer describes how a British military officer, Lieutenant Commander Michael Riley, issued orders to shoot down an unidentified object during the Gulf War.
As Lehrer explains, one major way officers like Lt. Riley identify objects that appear on their radar screens is by altitude. While Iraqi Silkworm missiles typically fly at around 1,000 feet, U.S. A-6 fighter jets fly at around 3,000 feet. To detect altitude, Riley’s ship used something called a 909 radar.
In this instance, however, Riley couldn’t immediately establish the identity of the blip on his screen through this or other standard protocols. And with the object speeding toward a U.S. battleship, Riley had to act quickly, decisively, dramatically—and somehow his dopamine neurons knew that that was an enemy blip. Here’s how Lehrer recounts the action:
Unfortunately, the 909 radar operator had entered an incorrect tracking number shortly after the blip appeared, which meant that Riley had no way of knowing the altitude of the flying object. Although he’d now been staring at the radar blip for almost a minute, its identity remained a befuddling mystery.
The target was moving fast. The time for deliberation was over. Riley issued the order to fire; two Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles were launched into the sky.
The Notes section of How We Decide includes a source for this information: A 1998 book called Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Its author is Gary Klein, a senior scientist at an engineering firm called Applied Research Associates.
In the old days, tracking down this book at the library or a bookstore would probably have taken at least an hour in the best-case scenario, and possibly days or weeks in the worst. In 2012, Amazon’s Look Inside! feature makes it instantly accessible, and thus Lehrer’s work is easy to check. Here’s how Klein tells the story:
It takes about thirty seconds to get altitude information after the 909 radar is turned on....Maddeningly, the Gloucester’s weapons director failed in his first two attempts to type in the track number….As a result, it was not until forty-four seconds into the incident that the 909 informed Riley that the target was flying at 1,000 feet. Only then did he issue orders to fire missiles at the track.
So the mysterious blip wasn’t quite as befuddling as Lehrer made it out to be when Riley decided to act. Instead, the 909 radar had “informed Riley that the target was flying at 1,000 feet.” According to Klein, this helped Riley “confirm his intuition” that the blip was an Iraqi missile rather than an U.S. fighter jet.
Today, thanks to the web and features like Amazon Look Inside!, books, research studies, and information of all kinds can essentially “talk back” if a reporter misrepresents them. And so of course can actual living beings. A generation ago, when thuggish editors kept the nation’s newsrooms in check with their heavy-handed enforcement of journalism’s fundamentals, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Unless you were, say, a major celebrity, how effectively could you get the word out when some scribe made up quotes and attributed them to you? Blogs didn’t exist. Twitter didn’t exist. Until the advent of the Web, the only way to publicize such journalistic shenanigans to large numbers of people was through the news media itself.
Now, you don’t even have to be alive to register your complaint. Advocates may do so on your behalf, as happened with W.H. Auden and Edward Mendelson, president of the W.H. Auden Society. In chapter 3 of Imagine, Lehrer ostensibly quotes Auden on the virtues of Benzedrine:
“The drug is a labor-saving device,” Auden said. “It turns me into a working machine.”
But according to Mendelson, “no evidence seems to exist that Auden said or wrote” the latter half of the quote. Instead, he suggests, it appears to be inspired by a passage from a 1947 Auden essay called “Squares and Oblongs.” Here again, Google Books is helpful. It makes the essay easily accessible and reveals that Auden’s intention was to portray Benzedrine (and alcohol, coffee, and tobacco) in a much more complicated fashion than Lehrer’s “quote” suggests. Here’s the relevant passage:
In the course of many centuries, a few labor-saving devices have been introduced into the mental kitchen -- alcohol, coffee, tobacco, benzedrine -- but these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down. Writing poetry in the twentieth century A.D. is pretty much the same as it was in the twentieth century B.C.: nearly everything still has to be done by hand.