The auteur theory of fact-checking


Christian Lorentzen, London Review of Books

A few weeks ago I found myself at a party talking to a woman with whom I seemed to have nothing in common. But it turned out she wrote for a New York fashion magazine, and although I never shop, am at best a threadbare ragamuffin and it wouldn’t be unfair to call me a slob, I knew we had one thing in common: we’d both dealt with fact-checkers.

‘Oh, they’re just so thorough,’ she said.

‘Yes, they really clean things up if you’ve been sloppy,’ I said.

‘And they call every place you’ve been and figure things out you never even thought of. They fix the prices of all the dresses. They figure out that the shampoo has some completely different name. They’re so smart,’ she said.

‘A lot of the time they’re smarter than the writers,’ I said.

‘And so nice,’ she said.

‘The job drives a lot of them mad though,’ I said. ‘If they take the job too seriously, they start to think they’ve written the story themselves.’

‘I know! They just take over!’ she said.

‘I used to call it the auteur theory of fact-checking,’ I said.

‘You’re very clever, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘They get diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. They have to go on medication. They burn out. Soon enough they go to business school or become pastry chefs,’ I said.

‘It was so nice to meet you,’ she said. I must have been boring her. She went off to freshen her drink.

If I were writing this for an American publication, I’d be under the burden of revealing the woman’s identity, and a fact-checker would call her to confirm what she said and what I said, what magazine she wrote for, whether our conversation ended with her going to get a new drink, what sort of drink it was, whether we were talking alone, whether I might have left anyone out of the conversation. Some people I’ve known a long time might be called to confirm that I am, in fact, a slob.

They do things differently in the States when it comes to magazine writing and fact checking. See how different at the London Review of Books …