Welcome to the Golden Age of Fact-Checking

What the Jonah Lehrer debacle reveals about the state of journalism today

(Page 2 of 4)

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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    The Creationist GOP Party, already at war with facts, have started banning those who use said facts:


    Thus Fox News, the Discovery Institute, Heritage, Liberty University and other sundry right-wing echo chambers.

  • Cytotoxic||

    That's a link to RedStain Mr Ass-stain. And most 'fact checkers' are indeed partisan pushers.

  • ||

    Does anyone even read red state?

    Hell Drudge doesn't even link to those guys.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Red Who?

  • ||

    Did a search on Reason.com.

    Latest article that came up was from 2006.

    OT: I got my Buckyballs today. Pain in the ass to get these fucking things back into a square again.

  • Bill||

    I heard you're not supposed to eat them.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I'll read Human Events occasionally, but I never click on the Red State articles that are always prominately linked to there. I did when they first started up but quickly realized they were were the flip-side of Huff Po, total morons.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Flip-side meaning RS is right and HP is left and both sites are moronic. Wasn't implying Huff Po was intelligent.

  • T o n y||


    A lot of people here read Red State.

    Fact checkers are often stupid.

    The right wing in this country lives in a universe of its own facts, not the real one.

  • ||


  • Cavpitalist||

    How does the left wing not live in a universe of its own facts.

    It never ceases to amaze me that Democrats REALLY believe that they like/have a monopoly on science and fact, when they spend so much of their lives revolting against the same.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Most of the fact-checking articles I've read lately have been partisan bullshit, and have focused more on point scoring and accusations of hypocrisy or oversimplification than any actual dishonesty.

  • Bill||

    Here's one: The free market allocates resources efficiently.

    Fact Checker: That's wrong. I found someone who said it's not true and only morons believe this. Anyone who thinks this could be true, even in limited circumstances, also believes in conspiracies.

    Apparently facts and their checking can only be in slogans less than 10 words.

  • Crask||

    That's your example, the right's attempt at making "fact checkers" actually check facts instead of simply trying to make the right always look like the ones who are wrong?

    Okay, if that's enough to convince you, I can see why you're a liberal, and why any argument I made to you, regardless of fact or merit would be completely ignored.

  • R C Dean||

    Certainly, the soi-disant fact-checkers of established media, and certainly of the DemOp media, have given fact-checking a bad name, as it often devolves into commentary on expressed opinions or policy positions.

    Real open-source fact-checking continues to bedevil the partisan media, though, beginning with the takedown of the forged Bush national guard letters, and continuing, one hopes forevermore.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Of course, this is also a golden age of ignoring facts that contradict preconceptions.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    I'm going to pretend you didn't say that...

  • ||

    Yeah, what's the use of fact-checking when partisans feel free to ignore facts at every turn?

  • Pro Libertate||

    It's the process that matters, dude, not the results.

  • ||

    yeah open source fact checking is still pretty well firewalled off with editorial control.

    The media's complete non-coverage of fast and Furious being a prime example.

    The failure of intervention in Libya and the distractions of "what Romney said" and anti-muslim video being a recent example.

  • T o n y||

    In other words you want the news media to be more partisan in favor of Republicans that it is.

    Maybe that will bring balance. Maybe it will just supplement the established GOP message machines of FOX News and all of talk radio.

    Or is fast and furious definitely as big a scandal as the latter outfits say it is?

  • ant1sthenes||

    When Congress is investigating malfeasance in the DOJ, I think it's worth a story or two. You can bet your ass it would be front page news for weeks if Romney was president.

  • ||

    Shorter Tony: Obama deserves to get his cock sucked by the entire establishment media! Don't shit on my parade!

  • ||

    I disagree with Tony.

    Must mean I am a Republican.

  • Pip||

    The WSJ's Toranto has pointed out that what is being called fact checking these days is really nothing more than opinion.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Well, yeah, waddya expect from that right-wing hack??!11


  • ||

    Remember when Joe use to tell us media matters was non-partisan?

    Good times.

  • entropy||

    LOFL. You mean they're not?!?

    But they are running Obama's superpac and Obama surely isn't partisan!

  • AlmightyJB||

    I can't believe I read that whole thing. Was this a test to see how long I would stick with a way too long story about Pixar bathroom embellishments? I failed.

  • John||

    Isn't the real problem is that this douche bag was peddling utter bullshit junk science? His book was ridiculous.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Minor nit: A-6 Intruders are bombers, not fighters. Subsonic too, as no self-respecting fighter has been since the 1950s.

    I think you probably did that on purpose...

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I would like to point out that H. L. Mencken admitted in several of his autobiographical works that he faked the news on several occasions. Indeed he describes one in some detail; he wrote an account of a major naval battle in the Russo-Japanese war based on factual information about the ships and major officers likely to be involved and his own lively imagination. He did so to scoop the other papers, he didn't get caught, and he didn't consider the story shameful.

    The synthesis of news from prejudice and opinion has been, if not SOP then largely winked at, so long as the reporters didn't get caught IN PUBLIC. What has changed is that A) The people who care enough to check have a venue for exposing a fake that the Media does not control and B) The major Media had a period of a few decades during which they were largely biased in one direction AND nobody was in much of a position to call them on it. Put bluntly, without anyone to keep them on their toes, they got sloppy. And, frankly, for whatever reason they show no real sign of learning their lesson.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "And it’s equally hard to imagine that journalists everywhere aren’t noting Lehrer’s travails and subsequently taking solemn, self-inflicted oaths to pursue their craft with enough honesty, accuracy, and transparency to make an angel squirm."

    I find it very easy to imagine. The lesson to learn is that you can become a star by making shit up.

  • ||

    fact checking now belongs to the People (tm). Two words say it all: throbbing memo.

    hey dan, how's the frequency over there, bitch!!??

  • Carlsbadip||

    Jonah Lehrer went to the "Right School" and had the proper opinions that fit the MSM. Fareed Zakaria went to the "Right School," held all the proper opinions, he could claim he knew better about the Middle East, and told everyone Bush was an idiot. Despite the fact Obama's use of Drones increases recruits, Obama surrendered Iraq to Iran (a bad move under any circumstance) and Obama is following many of Bush's other programs, Zakaria finds Obama to be brilliant and the MSM became exceedingly pleased because they have unity of opinion and diversity of appearance.

    With Leher how do we know he just made up only the Dylan quotes. Zakaria was just following in the path blazed by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The MSM in America today behaves just like the Glavlit did. The MSM is in the Obama propaganda business and they they are just following the play books of Lenin, Mussolini, Bernays, Gobbels, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Castro and Minh.

    We are hopelessly misled, lost and collapsing as a country. And all the Libertarians in Reason seemed more concerned about are socially liberal ideals, which will get them praise from their buddies on the left, but have little to with reality.

  • Bill||


    Not sure where you are coming from with that last bit. I don't hear anyone saying it's ok that our economy is being ruined or that the Patriot Act is ok now that obama is in charge.

    But you have to go with the low hanging fruit and if it is easier to get gay marriage ok's or possibly one day to get marijuana in the same category as alcohol, then you need to push those with whatever allies you find.

    And then, maybe someone who saw that you fought the good fight on a few issues may actually listen when you say something about the economy.

    And if drug legalization works and fewer people are in prison and fewer murdered, you can point to it and say look the free market really does work and we did not need govt' to protect us. And that laissez-faire did not lead to chaos. Then that argument may carry more weight in other areas.

  • Karen Kelly||

    Dear Greg,

    Part One

    This is an excellent article. Thank you for writing it. I agree with many of the commenters that institutional fact checkers can have an unconscious or conscious bias when they check facts in a news article. Let's not forget that journalists can leave out facts as well, and these omissions cannot be "checked" by a third party by virtue of their absence. This became evident when reports about the AP and other news gathering organizations sending legions of reporters to Alaska to sniff around Sarah Palin's trash bins became public while close to none were sent to Chicago to sniff around Hyde Park. The wife of one of these Alaskan bound reporters (and a friend) told me gleefully and with great pride that "X is going to Alaska to get dirt on Sarah Palin." Getting dirt and reporting are two different things - but according to my friend, this was her husband's mandate from his AP editor. Moreover, the sin of omission is another aspect of the decline of reporting that editors should pay more attention to. I am not a Sarah Sycophant, and never have been, but this was a despicable and unprofessional inequity which did a disservice to the American people and to Libertarian candidates for that matter.

  • Karen Kelly||

    Part Two:

    That said, I do want to point out one thing about your article, and that is you switch from talking about fact checking in Lehrer's books and fact checking in his articles as if they were the same thing. It's not entirely clear in your story but there is an underlying assumption that the process of fact checking of books is the same as fact checking in news articles. Magazines and newspapers employ fact checkers, but book publishers do not. Fact checking is the contractual obligation of the book author, at least in my experience. So it is true that Lehrer should have done a better job of fact checking himself or been as vigilant as possible when writing to cite sources in the text. As far as his books are concerned he is ultimately responsible for the contents, and made a pledge to the publisher in that regard when he signed his contract with them. Most book publishers of trade books do not require or even encourage footnotes in commercial nonfiction, and accept textual citations as adequate as long as there is enough information to allow a reader to find the source and see it for himself. A good copy editor will query a quote or fact for a source but it is up to the author and his editor whether or not to pay attention to the copy editor's query.

  • Karen Kelly||

    Part three:

    I understand mistakes can be made when you are under a tight deadline, but I am not privy to the kind of turn around times Lehrer's book publisher gave him. That said, it is fairly easy to incorporate the source into a sentence or paragraph as you write. I completely understand how a couple of source omissions can occur "here and there" in a 75,000-100,000 word manuscript. Some stories like the one about the discovery of the glue that led to Post It Notes has been oft told (and I've told it myself in a book I collaborated on) so it would have easy enough to say that, and then tell the story in his own way. Writing books under pressure is a challenge that I sympathize with on a personal level but we have to do the very best we can and admit our shortcomings when they are pointed out. Most good people will recognize the fallibility of humans. Most "here and there" mistakes and omissions are likely unintentional and therefore forgivable. However, serial errors of the kind you specify in this article may be more questionable and the result of other issues like hubris, arrogance, laziness, and so on. It's hard to know what is in someone's heart unless you know them very well.

    Thank you for allowing me to comment.

  • Ayn Random Variation||

    Why do all of these guys have such punchable faces?

  • realdealxxx||

    This tedious, pretentious, over-written exercise in pseudo investigative masturbation reminds me of those long-winded OCD nerds who go on computer forums to complain that a pixel seems to be missing from their 30 inch screen, you need to get a life.

  • markeric||

    The major Media had a period of a few decades during which they were largely biased in one direction AND nobody was in much of a position to call them on it. Put bluntly, without anyone to keep them on their toes, they got sloppy. And, frankly, for whatever reason they show no real sign of learning their lesson.
    P11-101 | OA0-002

  • Crask||

    Most fact checkers aren't. They just use that name because liberals are largely convinced by words rather than actions.

    You see, if they called themselves accurately, fact checkers for the left wing, even liberals would know to be weary that what they're saying might be biased.

    But because they don't use the words, "for the left wing," that's enough to convince liberals that they're either completely unbiased and neutral or biased towards the right wing. So if they say anything good about the right which, they do in a moderate sense rarely, the liberal will just assume it's right-biased. However, if it always makes the left look like it's right or the right look like it's wrong, which they do just about all the time, the liberal will assume it's unbiased and neutral merely because they don't call themselves "for the left wing." Don't believe me, ask what most liberals think about the bias of news media, and they'll almost all of them say that Fox News is corrupted for the right, and all other news, except the obvious ones like MSNBC that don't really hide it, is neutral. And even a good third will even think MSNBC is actually neutral.

  • ||

    Cui bono. Who benefits. Sorts them out fine without checking their alleged facts.

  • alaamiah||

    Thank you very much


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.