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June 12th, 2019 (Permalink)

Wolff's Howlers

Michael Wolff, author of Siege: Trump Under Fire, is himself under fire for factual errors in the new book. Many of the errors singled out for criticism seem minor, but one is a whopper:

In the book, Wolff claimed to possess copies of special counsel Robert Mueller's alleged March 2018 draft indictment of Trump on counts of obstruction of justice. However, Mueller's office has asserted that the documents "do not exist."1

Of course, the fact that Mueller's office denies the existence of the draft isn't dispositive, but given the denial the burden of proof is now on Wolff to substantiate his claim. However, Wolff has so far not produced the alleged draft:

Pressed on his sourcing, and whether he would release copies of the supposed Mueller draft indictment memos he claims to have gotten, Wolff averred2. He couldn’t release copies, he said, because that might expose one of his anonymous “authoritative” sources. “You just have to trust me,” he said.3

Trust is earned, but so is distrust, and I think Wolff has earned the latter. In addition to the non-existent indictment, all or most of Wolff's sources for the book are anonymous except for one: Steve Bannon, who does not inspire confidence, to put it mildly.

Just as we saw with Naomi Wolf's new book last month4, this is not the first time Michael Wolff's reporting has come under siege for factual errors. His previous book, Fire and Fury, was a bestseller but apparently factually-challenged5.

I'm less interested in the specifics of Wolff's errors than in what this, taken together with the recent Naomi Wolf blunder, says about the state of the fact-checking of books. According to a Washington Post report about Wolff's previous book:

How did mistakes like these get past a fact-checker? Neither Wolff nor his publisher, Henry Holt, responded to…inquiries about how―or whether―“Fire and Fury” was vetted. Whether is a real question here. In many cases, publishers of nonfiction books such as Wolff's perform little, if any, fact-checking, leaving authors with a choice: pay out of their advances for someone to review their work or skip this pesky step altogether. Wolff thanked three people for fact-checking, in the book's acknowledgments section, but did not describe the scope of their work. “In my experience, publishing houses rarely, if ever, pay for fact-checking,” said Robert Liguori, a freelance fact-checker…. “I can't speak to whether any publishers have their own checking departments, but I have never heard of a major publishing house that has an internal staff to check its books.” Liguori said he has always been hired by careful authors, never by a publisher. Dan Kaufman, who has fact-checked books…told me the same thing.5

So, what happened to all those "editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project"4? It was Naomi Wolf's publisher that boasted of them, but doesn't Henry Holt have any? Not all fact-checking is done by people called "fact-checkers", as Sarah Harrison Smith has written:

Fact checkers are everywhere, though many don't call themselves by that name. Editors, copy editors, writers, and researchers for print, radio, and even television verify facts as part of their jobs. Media that don't employ nominal fact checkers often divide the work of a fact checker among employees who do lots of other things, too.6

For this reason, I don't agree with the following:

Author…Susan Orlean told me that she was “flabbergasted” when she turned in a manuscript for her first book and learned that her publisher did not plan to check her work. But she said she has come to understand that “publishers simply can't do it.” “I mean, to properly fact-check a book basically means re-reporting a book,” she said. “That's how you do it. And a publisher can't do that, so I don't think it's malfeasance on their part or neglect. I think it's just not practical for them to do it, and they're assuming that you've done it.”5

Fact-checking is not the same as reporting, or at least it shouldn't be. Fact-checkers wouldn't be expected to redo all of the reporting that goes into a book such as Wolff's, but to check those things that can be quickly and easily checked. For instance, how hard would it have been to pick up a phone and call Mueller's office about the alleged draft indictment? Presumably, some reporter did just that, which is why the office issued the denial.

All of which raises the question: why didn't Wolff himself make such a call? I suspect that the reason is the obvious one that he didn't want to know. It wouldn't have been impossible or even impractical to check this; it just would have been too risky. The book is currently number four on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction bestseller list7.


Notes:

  1. Christina Zhao, "Michael Wolff Defends New Book From Allegations of Factual Inaccuracies in Heated Interview: 'This Critique is Bulls**t!'", Newsweek, 6/8/2019.
  2. "Averred?" Averred what? The author appears not to know the meaning of this word. "Aver" means "affirm" or "declare", and it's a transitive verb but it lacks an object here. What should the author have written? "Demurred", perhaps, which is intransitive and means "objected", and at least sounds similar to "averred". Otherwise, "declined" or "refused" would seem to be what was meant. See:
    • "Aver", Merriam-Webster, accessed: 6/11/2019.
    • "Demur", Merriam-Webster, 5/17/2019.
  3. Michael Isikoff, "Confronted with multiple errors in his new Trump book, a testy Michael Wolff says, 'You have to trust me'", Yahoo! News, 6/8/2019.
  4. See: Wolf's Howler, 5/31/2019.
  5. Callum Borchers, "How did Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury’ get past a fact-checker? It’s not clear that the book was vetted.", The Washington Post, 1/9/2018.
  6. Sarah Harrison Smith, The Fact Checker's Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right (2004), p. 11.
  7. "Hardcover Nonfiction", The New York Times, accessed: 6/12/2019.

June 1st, 2019 (Permalink)

Medice, Cura Te Ipsum1

Only the night before, Moran was an unknown 23-year-old student in St. Paul, Minnesota. … Living alone in a new city, she worked at a Chipotle to make ends meet…. That morning, though, she discovered she had become someone else. Strangers were calling her nasty names on social media. Her photo was plastered across internet news sites. A video was circulating online, and she was its villain. In it, she could be seen refusing to serve a group of black men at the restaurant the previous evening.2

The above quote is from an article that tells the story of a woman falsely accused of racism, and the online lynch mob that immediately formed and got her fired. It's a compelling story, and I recommend that you read the whole thing as a cautionary tale. I further recommend that you read it before returning to this entry as I have some criticisms to make of one thing in the article. I will assume that you have done so.

As you've read, the incident reported in the article was another rush to judgment based on a misleading online video, similar to the Covington incident earlier this year3, with similar threats of violence against the victim and her family. As far as I know, no one has yet been actually lynched by one of these mobs, but it's just a matter of time before someone acts on the threats.

As harrowing as the young woman's story is, in the following passage the article itself does something close to the very thing it is describing. It does so by propagating a false accusation of racism in the following claim: "Critics accuse President Trump of normalizing racism by referring to Mexican immigrants as 'rapists'…". As I pointed out last year4, it's a false accusation based on a contextomy.

Almost as bad as spreading this slander is attributing it to some unnamed "critics". This is a weaselly journalistic technique to introduce by innuendo a charge that the journalist doesn't want to have to defend. I'm sure somebody somewhere has accused Trump at some time or other of this, but it's really the journalist who is saying it and at the same time ducking responsibility. If CNN wants to accuse Trump of calling all Mexicans rapists, it should do so openly and stand by it; if it can't stand by it, because it's false, it shouldn't insinuate it.

It's easy to discover that the Mexican rapists accusation against Trump is bunk as not only Politifact but even Salon debunked it last year4. When CNN complains about Trump calling it "fake news"5, I'd be more sympathetic if it would stop publishing things like this.


Notes:

  1. "Physician, heal thyself", Latin. See: Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985). This proverb is cited by Jesus in Luke 4:23.
  2. John Blake, "How an internet mob falsely painted a Chipotle employee as racist", CNN, 5/27/2019.
  3. See: Recommended Reading, 1/30/2019, the last two selections.
  4. Meet the Press, 9/25/2018.
  5. Donovan Slack, "Trump to CNN: 'You are fake news'", USA Today, 1/11/2017.

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