The Facts Are Good Enough

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A New Yorker staff writer and best-selling author recently joined the rogues’ gallery of prose practitioners who decided that because the facts aren’t good enough, embellishment is necessary — and who, by doing, so, erode the already endangered social status of writing.

Jonah Lehrer — already in hot water at the New Yorker for incorporating some of his previously published material into articles for the magazine — admitted last week that he fabricated quotations in his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Print and e-book copies of the book, which has already sold 200,000 copies and was a New York Times best-seller and top-ranked on Amazon.com, have been pulled from distribution. Lehrer, who ironically once wrote in the New Yorker about the science of failure (and whose name is German for “teacher”), resigned from the magazine. Like most individuals who have been part of an early twenty-first-century wave of high-profile literary fabricators and plagiarists, his promising career as a writer is over.

I’ll leave the psychology of motivation for such invention to others to analyze. What I found pertinent to this website is the part of an article about Lehrer’s transgression that made reference to criticisms that book publishers do not double-check facts.

One of the fundamentals of journalism is veracity in reporting, and most periodical publications consider assiduous research and fact-checking integral to professional reporting and writing. Some professionally produced publications — including mostly magazines but some newspapers as well — employ staff or freelancers responsible for conducting research and contacting sources to verify quotations and quantifiable information, even though it is the reporter or writers responsibility to submit accurate content.

But lapses occur constantly: I’ve edited for several newspapers and magazines that, like many other periodicals, often have a space to acknowledge and correct significant factual errors. I’ve also read newspaper or magazine articles about incidents or events with which I was intimately familiar, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a given that even the most well-written article will get something wrong.

Sometimes these mistakes are innocuous. At other times, they are devastatingly damaging.

Book publishers are prone to allowing factual errors, as well as allowing inventions and plagiarism, to plague their industry, because, as one industry executive remarked, the onus is on the writer to provide copy free of such mistakes. Most writers strive to conduct impeccable research and transfer this dedication to the printed page, but even highly professional and very knowledgeable authors err at times.

Occasionally, because of that truth, a publishing company will request that an editor thoroughly fact-check a book or at least spot-check for errors; I’ve edited dozens of books and have performed comprehensive vetting for a couple of book projects and spot-checked several others. I’ve found errors that only the most exacting expert would notice (or, perhaps, care about) and others that might have prompted a recall of the published book if they had not been discovered. Such saves happen all the time. But many other mistakes slip through — and fabrication and theft of content (both more difficult to detect) are pervasive.

It’s one thing to slightly alter a quotation for grammatical effect or because the original statement was elliptical and requires more context, or to rebuild one from incomplete notes. It’s one thing to restate another person’s opinions or conclusions (which might themselves not be original). These are acceptable, standard practices.

It’s another thing to slide down the slippery slope of thinking that it’s too much trouble to contact sources to coax them into saying what you want them to say — just reconstruct a conversation from random comments and punctuate it with a bon mot in your source’s voice that she would have said if she had thought of it. It’s another thing to agonize that your article or essay or book is lacking, and to rationalize that the only way to remedy the shortcoming is to invent or copy.

Such well-intentioned deviousness seems harmless, but it’s akin, in a way, to bank robbery: The rewards are so gratifying, but the risk to oneself (and others) is hazardous, and the perpetrators almost always, eventually, get caught.

The moral of the story: Whether it comes to contemplating bank robbery or writing, opt for earning your money the hard way — honestly.

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7 thoughts on “The Facts Are Good Enough”

  1. I’ve been writing a series of articles on accurate scholarship and had lamented similar concerns. In political (or just politicised) writings, fact checking can itself be seen as a political act.

    To take a topical subject, look at the writing in the corporate press regarding Iran’s nuclear activities. How many times a day are we bombarded by writers (more accurately stenographers) telling us about the danger of Iran’s nuclear weapons program? How many of these “writers” are even aware that all 16 US intelligence agencies, Israeli intelligence and Obama’s own defence secretary are of the opinion that Iran does not, in fact, have a nuclear weapons program?

    As part of a process of intellectual self defence, we the consumers of such writing must hold it up to scrutiny. Perhaps then, publishers of such work would be more interested in ensuring its veracity.

  2. As a ghostwriter, I have been challenged more than once by a client (named author) who has stretched the truth or claimed someone’s thoughts or work as his own.

    Recently, after reviewing a manuscript where I had written a story as the client had shared it with me, he confessed that he had a “tendency” to embellish. I rewrote the story according to the new version of what happened. The project has stalled, and I’m wondering how much of what’s left in the book is actually true. Yet the parts of his story that I have been able to verify are compelling and his message worth reading without any embellishment.

    Indeed, the facts are good enough. Thanks for a good post.

  3. I wonder how these guys get caught. Whatever it is I’m glad it happens. BTW I absolutely love your daily tips. Even though I have no aspirations to write professionally I’m enjoying the education of proper word usage and just everyday writing. If you’re ever stuck for a topic perhaps you will consider writing about the word “some”. In my opinion this word is basically useless and greatly overused.

  4. Very timely (irony intended) article. Fareed Zakaria was caught with his inky paws in the proverbial cookie jar, plagiarising someone else’s write-up about gun-control in America .

    TIME magazine is left speechless.

  5. Regarding repeating content already used – most writers with a specialist interest do that, inevitably. They must re-present their key ideas till they’re accepted. But the wise reconstruct the material to add in new content or at least disguise its predecessor with new verbs and adjectives. Like plagiarism, it is a matter of degree. Most writing is derivative; many earn their crust rehashing the creative originality of the few. There’s little new in the world, but at least a writer can reorganize his words and ideas so as to present new facets of his thinking to the reader. To lift and drop in old paragraphs wholesale is unforgivable.

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