Welcome to the Golden Age of Fact-Checking

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


For the last several years, the universe has been kicking journalists. In 2012, they started kicking themselves. There was Jonah Lehrer and his fake Dylan quotes. There was Fareed Zakaria and his purloined paragraph. There was a series of other offenses, so many that the Poynter Institute's Craig Silverman ultimately dubbed these last few months journalism's "summer of sin." It was happening, many suggested, at least in part because journalism's traditional quality control mechanisms were in deep institutional decline; the fact-checkers had left the building.

At The New York Times, columnist David Carr invoked that bygone era when wayward cub reporters learned the finer points of news media ethics via "come-to-Jesus moments" where editors "put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it."

At Slate, New York University journalism professor Charles Seife, who reviewed 18 of Jonah Lehrer's blog posts and identified issues in 17 of them,  concluded that Lehrer's transgressions were "inexcusable," but also that the news industry shared "some of the blame for his failure" because it no longer subjects its novices to "layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word [gets] published."

At Big Think, David Berreby called Lehrer "the product of a business model that is good for media corporations and bad for you, the media consumer," and suggested that today's news outlets have largely abandoned journalism's "supporting machinery," thus creating a climate where "the temptation to cheat will get to be too much for some people."

But the "summer of sin" didn't happen because fact-checking doesn't take place as much as it once did. It happened because fact-checking got democratized. True, it now largely occurs at a different and potentially problematic point in the process—after an article has been published. But fact-checking also happens far more transparently than it once did, and overall, it occurs more frequently too. Now, a single reader in his home office can do in 15 minutes what it might have taken the New Yorker's entire squadron of legendary fact-checkers days to accomplish in, say, 1992.

Take Jonah Lehrer's books. After reading Reason contributing editor Michael C. Moynihan's story in Tablet about how Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine, I decided to take a look at the book myself. In the midst of its second chapter, I came across a paragraph that felt oddly familiar: It seemed to be a paraphrase of a paragraph that I had written in a piece about Post-It Notes that I'd published in 2005 at a now-defunct magazine called The Rake. Then, I realized that while Lehrer quotes Post-It Notes inventor Art Fry three times in Imagine, he didn't include any sources for these quotes in the book's Notes section, nor did he mention that he'd interviewed Fry. (In multiple other instances in Imagine, Lehrer includes a citation in the Notes section when he interviews someone first-hand.) Ultimately, I realized that one of the quotes was quite similar to one that appears in my piece, and another one was identical to one that appears in a Wired article from 2008 that Lehrer did not write.

When I emailed Lehrer to ask him about the provenance of these quotes, he didn't directly reply to me. Instead, Andrew Wylie, his agent, contacted me, and explained that Lehrer had interviewed Art Fry in 2008 and that Lehrer had "no memory" of ever reading my article. (Wylie also stated that the Wired piece had not been properly cited in the book.) In a follow-up email, Wylie said that Lehrer would be happy to cite my article in a corrected version of Imagine but repeated the assertion that Lehrer had "no memory" of reading it.

This and other aspects of the exchange seemed less than straightforward to me, and made me wonder exactly how inclined Lehrer was to the sort of fabrications Moynihan had discovered. In an effort to assess this, I started reading both Imagine and How We Decide. What I found was similar to what Seife found. Throughout both books, there are instances where Lehrer alters quotes, exaggerates statistics, omits key details that appears in his source materials, or otherwise commits journalistic misdemeanors.

What also struck me was how rich an information environment the Web has evolved into over the last decade or so. In December 2001, when Ken Layne famously declared, "It's 2001, and we can Fact Check your ass," hundreds of news media outlets had come online and it was becoming increasingly easy to see how they all cribbed from each other, how reporters at the same press conference quoted the same sources in slightly different ways, etc. And yet we were still in the Dark Ages then. Google Books didn't exist. YouTube didn't exist. Amazon's Look Inside! feature was just a couple months old. Most newspaper archives were still extremely expensive to access. In those days, journalists gaming the facts still benefited from the relative opacity of information.

Today, things are far more transparent. For example, when I started reading How We Decide via Google Books, I immediately noted a sentence in the book's first chapter in which Lehrer purports to depict a snap count Tom Brady exclaims in the midst of Super Bowl XXXVI, which took place in 2002:

Brady reads the Ram defense and calls out a series of coded commands: "White twenty! Ninety-six is the Mike! Omaha go!"

While such vivid, you-are-there bonbons of authenticity are the stuff best-sellers are made of, where exactly had it come from, I wondered. Did Lehrer watch a tape of Super Bowl XXXVI with the volume turned up really loud? Did he track down Tom Brady years after the fact and quiz him on what he'd shouted at the line of scrimmage during that particular moment?

A quick Google search pointed me toward an answer: Similar language is featured in a 2007 article in the Boston Globe that in part reads:

NBC's telecast included clear audio of Brady at the line of scrimmage, authoritatively barking out various instructions to his teammates. "White 20!" "96 is the mike!" "White 18!" "57 is the will!" "Set!"…

"Hey Jab!" he yelled out with urgency to his left, in the direction of receiver Jabar Gaffney. "Omaha! Go!"

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.

As Auden presents it, Benzedrine (and alcohol, coffee, and tobacco) really aren't labor-saving devices. While they may offer a temporary and/or illusory payoff, they're ultimately so problematic that poets in Auden's time function essentially as they did in the Bronze Age: "Nearly everything still has to be done by hand."

In the Web Age, alcohol and tobacco have new utility—reporters, if not poets, need something to help mitigate the stress that comes with knowing how powerfully their work might be scrutinized at any moment. Indeed, however effective the internal journalistic beatdowns of old were in getting reporters to toe the line, it's hard to imagine Lehrer would not have chosen, say, a private slap on the wrist from the New Yorker's David Remnick over the very public drubbing he has received since Michael Moynihan reported on his dissembling. 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.

All in all, this technologically driven drift toward ever-increasing accountability is a pretty sobering development for a profession that has historically served as a haven to a vast menagerie of hucksters, con artists, and truth-stretchers.

But if Lehrer serves as a terrifying example of how harsh the penalties can be for journalistic malfeasance these days, he also proves that misinformation can lodge itself pretty firmly in the public record even in the current environment of near-instantaneous verifiability and ubiquitous access to information. Take, for example, his efforts to convince the world that Pixar's Emeryville headquarters only has two bathrooms. 

This story has its genesis in Steve Jobs' out-of-the-box notion that forcing Pixar's entire staff to poop in the same place would ultimately lead to incredibly profitable children's movies. In a book called The Second Coming of Steve Jobs that was published before Pixar had even moved into its new building, Alan Deutschman reported on Jobs' unique team-building vision:

Then Steve dropped the real bomb: he said that there would be a single bathroom in the new complex. Only one bathroom for four hundred people. That way, it would serve as the central meeting place, the locus for informal discussions.

Alas, the men and women of Pixar weren't quite ready to think that different!

The company's main building actually features eight bathrooms. There are four on the first floor—two near the front of the building's atrium and two further back. On the second floor, this set-up repeats itself. In his 2011 book Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson makes this pretty clear. He writes:

Jobs even went so far as to decree that there be only two huge bathrooms in the building, one for each gender, connected to the atrium…They reached a compromise: there would be two sets of bathrooms on either side of the atrium on both of the two floors.

But just to be sure, I emailed a Pixar publicist. I asked if there were eight total bathrooms in the building. I also asked if these bathrooms were all part of the building's original construction, or if some had been added at a later time. "To my knowledge all eight bathrooms were in place when the building was built," the publicist replied.

The earliest instance I could find of Lehrer mentioning Pixar's bathrooms occurs in the June 2010 issue of Wired, in a passing reference that simply notes that the "building's essential facilities [are] centrally located." In a January 2012 issue of the New Yorker, he offers more detail:

Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.)

If this parenthetical was an attempt by the New Yorker's legendary fact-checkers to police Lehrer, their victory was only temporary. In his book Imagine—which was published after the New Yorker article appeared but possibly printed beforehand—there is no reference to a second pair of bathrooms:

But that still wasn't enough, which is why Jobs eventually decided to locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium.

And when talking to reporters and addressing live audiences, Lehrer often goes into more inaccurate detail than he did in Imagine, insisting that Pixar has just two bathrooms. Here, for example, is how he tells the story on NPR's All Things Considered in March 2012:

[Jobs] insisted there be only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar Studios, and that these would be in the central space. And of course, this is very inconvenient; no one wants to have to walk 15 minutes to go to the bathroom. And yet Steve insisted that this is the one place everyone has to go, every day.

According to the May 2001 issue of Modern Steel Construction, the Pixar building has a footprint of 240ft. x 480 ft. With the bathrooms centrally located, what this suggests is that no one inside Pixar is ever more than eighty yards or so away from a commode. Even Wall-E's sad endomorphs could cover that distance in substantially less than 15 minutes. And most actual Pixar employees, I'm betting, could break the 30-second mark if really pressed.

Of course, even when news media outlets were as lavishly staffed as road construction crews, it would have been impractical to fact-check every utterance of interview guests. Now, that's out of the question, and thus, along with NPR, the Economist has also inadvertently helped Lehrer spread the Pixar bathrooms myth. So has U.S. News & World Report, British GQ, Inc. magazine, and Australia's Radio National, amongst others. And obviously it's not just traditional news outlets that are creating this chorus of misinformation. The NEA, the California Thoracic Society, the Covenant Presbyterian Church, and the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce have lent their voices to the cause too. So have numerous individual bloggers and tweeters.

By now, the myth of insufficient bathrooms as creative laxative is so entrenched in the minds of the world's thought leaders that disaster seems imminent. In just a few short years, creativity may reach all-time highs, but unoccupied stalls will be as scarce as people who still pay for newspaper subscriptions. In sleek corporate headquarters everywhere, weak-bladdered project managers will be marking territory on elevator walls. Interface designers will be defecating in broom closets.

If you think that such apocalyptic scenarios only underscore the need for old-fashioned internal fact-checking, well, sure. But what the Pixar bathrooms myth also illustrates is how little influence our most heralded journalism franchises really wield now. The New Yorker's legendary fact-checkers can't police every Google gathering where Lehrer puts his "two bathrooms" spin on the story—and it can't stop Google from turning his presentation into media too. They can't stop the nation's preteen ministers from referencing Lehrer's Pixar bathrooms myth in their online curriculums. But if the Internet makes it easy to spread dubious information near and far, it also puts Pixar publicists and old copies of Modern Steel Construction close at hand. The truth is that we're living in a golden age of fact-checking. Readers, rejoice! Journalists, beware!