- Naomi Shavin
This is an article about fact-checking for a publication at the University of Pennsylvania, so we might as well start by talking about Stephen Glass.
Glass is a graduate of the class of 1994. He majored in anthropology and his primary extra-curricular involvement was with the Daily Pennsylvanian. He was a Benjamin Franklin scholar and a member of Sphinx, a secret society. After graduating, Glass rose quickly in the nonfiction writing world. He started at The New Republic as an editorial assistant in 1995. By 1998, he was the associate editor at The New Republic and also ran stories in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, George, New York Magazine, and Mother Jones. In May of that year, Glass was caught fabricating a story for The New Republic called “Hack Haven.” This discovery rattled the journalism world. Glass had fabricated, if not the entirety then details and sections of, at least 42 articles, 27 for The New Republic alone.
Stephen Glass left The New Republic. He applied to law school. In 1999, he graduated from Georgetown. He applied for the New York Bar Association the next year and passed the exam, but withdrew before being rejected from certification on moral grounds. In 2003, he wrote a fictionalized memoir called The Fabulist. That same year, HBO releasedShattered Glass, a movie starring Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard and based on Glass’ scandal. Glass moved to California and became a paralegal. In 2009, he applied to join the California Bar Association and was rejected. He has since attempted to repeal this rejection. On November 6th, 2013,the California Supreme Court suggested he will again be found morally unfit to practice law, but a formal decision is pending.
Even before November 6th, several articles were predicting that the Supreme Court would reject Glass, and so perhaps emailing him on November 5th was not my best idea. I was well aware of what was happening in his saga. Maybe I hoped that he would do something nice, even write me back a one-liner politely declining to comment in order to tip universal karma in his favor. I imagined calling him and reaching a voicemail that would say, “The party you are trying to reach is unavailable,” and I fantasized about analyzing that. Was he really unavailable, in my imagination, or was he screening his calls? Was the invented voicemail claiming his unavailability another lie? It couldn’t be, because I never found a phone number for him, even when I contacted his publishers, and so I never reached a voicemail.
I did notice, however, that in a 2007 photograph of Glass that ran with the LA Times story, “Court weighs granting disgraced journalist Stephen Glass law license,” Glass was wearing a T-shirt with a cupcake and crossbones on it. I know the brand, Johnny Cupcakes. On the Johnny Cupcakes website, the shirt Glass is wearing is currently the first item listed under their merchandise. The clothing line is misleadingly described as a cupcake shop with bakeries in several major cities whose “Freshly Baked” goods feature “NO SUGAR NO CARBS NO FAT.” Interesting choice, Glass.
I found out about Johnny Cupcakes a little less than a month before the LA Times article ran. I had been in Boston in early October, walking down Newbury Street with a friend and we were lured into Johnny’s by edgy signs promising guilt-free baked goods. The young man behind the “bakery” register explained the history of the clothing line, then proceeded to hint that the three of us — him, my friend and I — should grab Jimmy John’s together the next time he came to Philadelphia. It felt like a trap designed to lure girls exactly like us. The cake was a lie.
Of course, lies are all around us, usually not as elaborate as those of Stephen Glass, but not quite as innocuous as Johnny Cupcakes, either. We’re lied to in movies and on television, when destructive habits leave beautiful characters unblemished, when sex is never awkward, when stories have happy endings. We’re lied to in advertisements, when shoes promise to sculpt our upper thighs, when cereals make overly-nutritious claims, when cars make us seem rich and beautiful. Most of these lies raise skepticism– we know that if something seems too good, it can’t be true. But some lies are over our heads. They target what we don’t know, what we want to hear, what we don’t know how to question. Often, they combine what we want from our entertainment lies (characters that fascinate, fantasies of how life could be, promises of happier times) with what we want from our advertisement lies (easy solutions, something that can be all good and all wholesome, an attractive display of what we value). Some of the best bundlers of tantalizing lies are political ads and campaigns.
FactCheck.org exists to deconstruct and analyze what is said and spread in the political sphere. Part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck is a nonprofit that employs eight staff members: four professional journalists and four UPenn student fellows who each serve one year on the staff. FactCheck began in December of 2003 and, in its 10 years, has established a reputation not only for excellence in the field, but also for being nonpartisan. Their site is user-friendly and content-driven, and also user-driven. One of the site’s most frequently updated sections is called “Ask FactCheck.” It hosts topical questions submitted by readers and the responses researched and put together by the FactCheck team. Often, the questions submitted represent the major concerns of readers who are astute enough to suspect when a statement seems fishy, but not quite sure how to research the answers themselves. In this way, FactCheck makes good on its mission statement: to act as a consumer advocate for voters.
According to FactCheck Director Eugene Kiely, questions submitted often vary slightly on a general theme. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, is a trending topic. An article referring to the ACA ran on November 25th with the headline, “Free Gas For Low-Income Americans.” The question submitted was paraphrased as, “Is it true that Obamacare provides for opening ‘free gasoline’ service stations for low-income people?” The answer, which could have been a one-word “no,” included lengthy quotations from the satirical news story that started the rumor, an explanation of what the ACA does provide, and a who’s-who guide on satirical and fictional “news sources.”
Of course, FactCheck is a unique news source in its own right, not simply a consumer advocate. When FactCheck was flooded with questions about the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate in 2008, the organization sent reporter Joe Miller to the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago to check out the birth certificate in person. Photographs of the birth certificate in his hands accompanied his article, which assured readers:
FactCheck.org staffers have now seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate. We conclude that it meets all of the requirements from the State Department for proving U.S. citizenship. Claims that the document lacks a raised seal or a signature are false. We have posted high-resolution photographs of the document as “supporting documents” to this article. Our conclusion: Obama was born in the U.S.A. just as he has always said.
Though FactCheck continued to receive questions and posted subsequent articles on the birth certificate topic, they were credited with solving the birth certificate issue, and won a Clarion Award in 2009 for their presidential election coverage in 2008.
It’s not the adventurous, unswerving answering of the Obama birth certificate question, but the sheer number of times the same question, or some variation on the same question was asked that characterizes what life is like in the fact lane.
Mr. Kiely, who has worked for USA TODAY, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Record, in Hackensack, New Jersey, explained that many of the questions that FactCheck receives can be directed to previous articles on the same topic that the team has already researched, or the questions prompt additional coverage on a previously researched issue. This convergence of questions, and the fact that their quantity is determined by the curiosity of readers, makes it difficult to estimate how many facts are actually processed by the organization in a day, in a week, or even averaged out over a year. Mr. Kiely, true to his role as director, would not even offer a rough estimate, lest it be incorrect or impossible to support with statistics.
So, since December 2003, how many facts has FactCheck fact checked if FactCheck could check checked facts? It’s impossible to say (no, really, try saying that out loud). But the importance of this work is undeniable. If viral spiral, a term for how rumors spread exponentially across the internet, is a force of human nature, it is also the end result that drives many rumor mills, particularly news sources that are not quite satirical nor rooted in fact, such as politically-charged blogs.
One such blog, ironically called NewBusters, claims a mission of “exposing & combatting liberal media bias.” In January of this year, they ran an article in which Senator Lindsey Graham is quoted saying that Obama “folded like a cheap suit” when the Senate tried to tackle immigration reform in 2007. Curious, I poured over Congressional transcripts and C-SPAN video from the vote that Graham described, searching for the moment that Obama supposedly introduced the sunset clause that Graham claimed was a poison pill to the bill. It was not Obama who introduced the poison pill, but the senator who spoke directly after Obama — Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. This accusation suggests that either Lindsey Graham was deliberately lying about the vote that killed the bill, playing on the fallibility of his conservative, South Carolina audience’s memory (and maybe even their desire for it to have been Obama because of their inclination to mistrust him) or his own memory failed for those very same reasons. After all, it seems likely that most Americans, and possibly also most senators (though their staffers are hopefully a different story), have their cavities drilled and their colons examined more frequently than they devote hours to studying congressional debates and votes on bills that tanked years ago. (This comparison, I’d like to note, reflects my field observations, but I cannot guarantee that it is fact.)
This idea, then, that individual and collective memory can drop, mix up, and even fabricate details, poses an enormous challenge for anyone interested or invested in the art of checking facts. I’ll pose a lower stakes example to explore these complications.
In December of 1999, when I was eight years old and my brother was five, we were playing on the computer together and sharing a chair. Adam wanted to participate more in what we were doing, but I wanted the computer mouse and so I elbowed him. Somehow, my minor action instigated a series of catastrophic reactions. First, Adam fell from the chair, smashing down onto a toy doll house. The blue plastic chimney ripped open the back of his perfect little head. There was blood and screaming and Adam clutching the gushing wound as he fled the scene deliriously, meeting my mother in the house somewhere between the room with the computer and her bathroom, where she had been getting ready. I don’t remember much, except my mother’s hand replacing my brother’s tiny one. She held a towel to his head to stop up the bleeding while she wailed, wondering aloud if he needed stitches. I remember her, and I remember my guilt. I couldn’t swallow it. We were all sobbing.
My father remembers being in the room when I pushed Adam, being there on the spot to take care of his son, but Adam has something of a savant memory for moments from our childhood. As a kid, his party trick was being able to calculate in a matter of seconds what day of week that any date in history fell on. He could do future dates and their days of the week, too. And so naturally, my brother and my father recently found themselves in a furious debate about whether or not my father was even in our house, let alone in the room, when Adam cracked his head open. My father insisted that he was there, holding Adam’s head. Adam claimed that my father was not only wrong, but insulting one of his defining abilities — his incredibly sharp memory. And this was a traumatic memory, nonetheless. There’s no way, my brother pontificated, that he could have mixed this up. Sheepishly, I backed up my brother, reluctant to admit any role in the story at all. I went to bat for my dad, too, though. Adam, I explained, you can see why dad’s memory would trick him, can’t you? He has heard this story and thought about it so many times, and his gut and his conscience wanted him so badly to have been there to protect you. His mind made up a memory he wishes he’d had all along because it is probably too upsetting for him to think about that unfolding without him. Cut him some slack.
I knew I’d read something about false memories, perhaps in a psych class, or in The New York Times, that I wasn’t making up my argument entirely. Sure enough, on July 25th, 2013, James Gorman had an article in the Times’ Science section about scientists at MIT who managed to create false memories in a mouse, creating an opportunity to explore how true and false memories are created and stored. According to the article, memory begins in the hippocampus, a part of the brain very close to the amygdala, which gets activated by strong emotions. The hippocampus and amygdala work in tandem and in over-drive when the brain creates strong memories, such as traumatic memories. This is why the memory of being in the room seemed as real to my father as the memory of my father’s absence from the scene did to my brother. Both of their “memories” were saturated with emotion.
If it’s only natural to create false memories, then in the same way, it’s human nature to spread the articles that shock, validate, or befuddle us. Perhaps a moral institution should be in place to keep that particular inclination in check. After all, institutions that enforce societally-deemed decent and moral behavior are the hallmarks of civilization. If honesty is seen as decent and moral, then dishonesty, its opposite, must be immoral. The question is, is dishonesty as immoral as are, for instance, murdering or theft?
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, when false information was rampant on crowd-sourced media sites, like Twitter and Reddit, major news organizations, particularly those without a full-time fact-checking team, ended up publishing erroneous reports. Many of these reports criminalized innocent bystanders who became suspects in the three days before the FBI released video and photographs of the Tsarnaev brothers.
The innocent suspects suffered a grave injustice. Most of their names will fade from collective memory, but the name of one wrongfully suspected innocent man is seared into American history. Richard Jewell was a security guard not at the Boston Marathon, but at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He spotted the pipe bomb planted by Eric Robert Rudolph, but because he spotted it, he was suspected as having planted it so that he could play hero by discovering it and clearing the area. The manhunt for Eric Robert Rudolph, unlike the four-day manhunt for the Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, took seven years. Rudolph wasn’t even considered a suspect in the bombing of the Olympics until February 1998. Richard Jewell spent years settling with the media organizations that ruined his personal life and his professional reputation, despite his never being formally charged and his receiving a letter from the US Government clearing him of suspicion in October of 1996. Jewell’s life was, in many ways, irrevocably changed by his trial by media. One might even argue that it was stolen from him.
The recorded illegality of theft famously dates back to Hammurabi’s Code, written in 1772 BCE, which demands an eye for an eye. In a way, it seems that dishonesty, particularly the spread of misinformation via a viral spiral, is like taking an eye — it literally impairs our ability to see things as they are. But what is the eye that should be taken in return? Twitter and Reddit are difficult to police for validity of fact, but they are also arguably two of the most democratic forms of media in human history, and there is inherent value in that. If only places like FactCheck.org could have the kind of devoted, volunteer-based participation that Twitter or Reddit or even Wikipedia have amassed.
Perhaps, though, that is the direction in which a solution lies. It is undeniable that the spread of propaganda and false advertising and misinformation and campaign lies are affecting Americans on a daily basis. Yet, individuals do reach out to FactCheck, and spend hours poring over Congressional Records, and wade through the information pollution online to find sources they trust, where liars, even tremendously successful liars, are prosecuted. Consumer advocate and product comparison websites exist that pay modest freelance wages to writers who research and write for them. Surely some mega-database, like Wikipedia, with the kind of instantaneous participation of Twitter, the reliability of FactCheck, and the volunteer or freelance infrastructure of review pages or product comparison websites, cannot be far on the digital media horizon? Or maybe the point is not the end result, the institution or app that fact checks more facts and check facts faster, but rather the process. Maybe it’s enough that people are trying and succeeding in large and small ways to stick as close to the truth as we possibly can. After all, the problem is not only outside of us, but within us. It is human nature, maybe even human fate to wrestle with ourselves.
In the famous biblical story from Genesis, when Jacob wrestles with an angel, or according to some interpretations, with G-d, the fight doesn’t end when one wrestler wins. It ends because it becomes morning, and Jacob’s mysterious challenger will not fight once the day breaks. Jacob insists that the challenger cannot leave until he blesses Jacob, and that is when Jacob is given the name Israel.
There’s something in that story that feels relevant. It’s not about the man beating the myth, the flesh and blood conquering the mystical. It is about how the man wrestles with the mysterious for as long as he can. The fight changes the man — it literally changes his name to “Israel,” which sounds, to my anglo-centric ears, so close to “is real.” My read is that the very struggle alone is the most important part of getting to what is real. The struggle represents our desire to conquer myth, and without that desire, there is no process, and without process, there can never be a result. Of course, don’t take my word for it. I am, after all, ending an article on fact checking with a reference to one of the oldest and hardest to fact check documents in human history. The Bible also happens to be the single, most frequently printed book in human history. And isn’t that the tension?