My Christmas Present to You
Five family members threw a party on Christmas day to exchange presents. They agreed to meet at a conveniently-located hotel. So that everyone would receive a present but no one would have to buy more than one, the five decided that each of them would bring just one present to the party and each would receive one in turn. The presents would be distributed by the order of arrival of the party-goers, with each participant giving a present to the next to arrive. The last person to arrive would give a present to the one who arrived first.
After the opening of the presents, the five sat around the room drinking wassail and trying to figure out whose present went to whom. They made the following five statements:
- Abigail: "I received the present Barnabas brought."
- Barnabas: "I received the present brought by Daniel."
- Charlotte: "I arrived right before Abigail."
- Daniel: "Barnabas brought the present I received."
- Erle: "Barnabas arrived right after I did."
Perhaps it was the wassail they were drinking, which was spiked with apple brandy, but two of the family members were wrong in what they said. However, the other three party-goers spoke the truth.
Who received presents from whom?
Is what Barnabas said consistent with what Daniel said?
Is what Erle said consistent with what Barnabas said?
|Person||Received Present From|
Acknowledgment: The above puzzle was based on problem 2.19 from Bonnie Averbach & Orin Chein's Problem Solving Through Recreational Mathematics (2000).
The New York Times Fails at Fact-Checking, Again
If you have free time over the holidays to do some reading, I recommend the following two rather lengthy articles. They're not holiday-related stories, but are worth reading if you're interested, as I am, in what's happening to The New York Times. I've excerpted below the most relevant parts of the articles and those that I want to comment on, and rearranged them to emphasize a pattern to which I want to call your attention.
First up is a National Public Radio article:
- David Folkenflik, "'New York Times' Retracts Core Of Hit Podcast Series 'Caliphate' On ISIS", NPR, 12/18/2020.
The New York Times has retracted the core of its hit 2018 podcast series Caliphate after an internal review found the paper failed to heed red flags indicating that the man it relied upon for its narrative about the allure of terrorism could not be trusted to tell the truth. The newspaper has reassigned its star terrorism reporter, Rukmini Callimachi, who hosted the series.
Caliphate relayed the tale about the radicalization of a young Canadian who went to Syria, joined the Islamic State and became an executioner for the extremist group before escaping its hold. Canadian authorities this fall accused the man, Shehroze Chaudhry, of lying about those activities. He currently faces criminal charges in a federal court in Ontario of perpetrating a terrorism hoax.
"We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes," New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet tells NPR in an interview on Thursday. "I think we were so in love with it that when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn't listen hard enough." …
The first piece in a pattern common to these journalistic failures is falling in love with a story and not allowing fact-checking to get in the way of telling it. If anything, the news media should be more skeptical and more careful in fact-checking those stories they love than those they don't.
Caliphate made a huge splash for The Times, winning awards, acclaim, new listeners for its podcasts and new paying subscribers. And it further propelled Callimachi into the journalistic stratosphere. …
On multiple occasions prior to the release of the podcast, Chaudhry had told Canadian news outlets that he had traveled to Syria in 2014 and joined ISIS. But he had denied playing any role in killings. To Callimachi and the Times, however, he claimed he had conducted executions. After Caliphate posted the episode in which Chaudhry described killing two civilians, an uproar ensued in Canada. … Chaudhry came forward and once again denied he had participated in any killings―that is, he denied what he had said, in his own words, on tape, to Callimachi and The New York Times. Even so, in 2019, the podcast series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a Peabody, one of the highest distinctions in broadcast journalism.
I'm starting to think that one should be more skeptical of a news story when it wins awards than otherwise. At any rate, it doesn't appear that the Pulitzer or Peabody organizations do any fact-checking of their own before bestowing awards. Apparently, the Times is returning the Peabody award for Caliphate1. Good! Now return Walter Duranty's Pulitzer2.
The Canadian media and a handful of critics in the U.S.…raised significant questions about Callimachi's judgment and the accuracy of her reporting. … The Times resisted revisiting Chaudhry's story until his arrest this fall, when Canadian officials charged him with lying about participating in terrorist activities. It then published the findings into Chaudhry's activities by its distinguished national security reporter, Mark Mazzetti, who cast significant doubt on the Canadian's claims. …
When questions were first raised about the podcast…Callimachi dismissed criticism of the validity of her series by saying only her team had been able to get the truth from him. … This fall, as Canadian authorities were wrapping up an investigation on Chaudhry, Callimachi similarly championed her series. … The Times defended her piece to The Washington Post and others, saying the reporting proved to be true and that doubts about Chaudhry's account were central to the podcast's narrative. …
A separate internal review of Caliphate's reporting process was led by senior investigative editor Dean Murphy. He found that Callimachi and her editors repeatedly failed to push hard enough to verify Chaudhry's claims, Baquet tells NPR. "They came back and said, 'If you look at the guy's story, there is not enough powerful evidence that he was who he claimed to be for us to justify that story,'" Baquet says. In the interview with NPR lasting nearly an hour, Baquet says the Times did not have evidence Chaudhry had ever been to Syria. Nor could it show he had joined ISIS, much less kill civilians for the group. The man's account proved to be riddled with holes and contradictions. Even when confronting some of them, the reporting and producing team sought ways to show his story could still turn out to be true.
This is the second piece in the pattern: When sufficiently invested in a story, they set out to find evidence to support it rather than to refute it. Rather than discovering the truth, the goal becomes one of saving the story.
Baquet says top editors long accustomed to editing complex written investigative pieces were deferential to an ambitious audio investigative team presenting a compelling narrative yarn. He says he shares in that blame. "I thought we produced another, you know, 'Holy damn!' story," Baquet recalled. "I was really proud of it. Another big story to embrace and applaud."
Well, it turned out to be a "'Holy damn!' story", but not in the way that Baquet hoped.
Callimachi, a noted terrorism correspondent, has won some of the most distinguished honors in foreign reporting and is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. … Baquet says editors relied on Callimachi's judgment to guide their own when it came to Caliphate. "She's a powerful reporter who we imbued with a great deal of power and authority," he says. "She was regarded at that moment as, you know, as big a deal ISIS reporter as there was in the world. And there's no question that that was one of the driving forces of the story." Baquet notes that Callimachi had broken many stories and says that Murphy had found there had been no dishonesty or attempt by the Caliphate team to deceive editors or readers. …
Perhaps not, but by The Times own account, there was a failure of due diligence in checking the story. The team seems to have deceived themselves first, and then unintentionally deceived their editors and the rest of us.
[Callimachi] has detractors, even within her own newsroom. Some editors and reporters on the Times' foreign desk kept their distance, according to colleagues who spoke on the condition they not be named due to the sensitivity of the topic. … Yet Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn, a former top international editor, stood behind her. … Baquet declines to say whether other Times journalists would receive reprimands or be reassigned as a result of the internal review. …
Baquet points to media columnist Ben Smith's October look at the controversy3 as part of what he says is a push for transparency. "The New York Times has done tremendously ambitious journalism over the last few years. All of it has held up to the greater scrutiny," Baquet says.
All of it? What about the 1619 Project4? It seems to have followed much the same pattern as this case.
As of Friday, Baquet is posting an editor's note atop each element of Caliphate saying the series should never have been produced with Chaudhry as a central character. The Times also writes that the series did not meet its standards for accuracy or fact-checking. The Times did not remove the episodes from its site or feeds. Asked whether its actions constitute a retraction, Baquet pauses and says, "I guess for the parts that were about Chaudhry and his history and his background. Yeah, I think it is. Sure does." …
"When we get it wrong, I want people to understand we're going to talk about it," he continues. "And what I'm hoping is that by talking about it, people will understand that we want to win their trust. And we want them to believe what we report."
Good luck with that. I have some recommendations at the end for how The Times can win back our trust and belief.
One thing I'll say for The Times is that they've done a good job of investigating and revealing publicly what went wrong in this case. The following article by Ben Smith, a media reporter for The Times, must have made painful reading for many people at the newspaper.
- Ben Smith, "An Arrest in Canada Casts a Shadow on a New York Times Star, and The Times, The New York Times, 10/11/2020.
…The first episode of Caliphate appeared on April 19, 2018, marking a major step toward The Times's realization of its multimedia ambitions. … The presentation carried an obvious, if implicit assumption: the central character of the narrative wasn't making the whole story up. That assumption appeared to blow up a couple of weeks ago…when the Canadian police announced that they had arrested the man who called himself Abu Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, under the country's hoax law. …
Ms. Callimachi's approach and her stories won her the support of some of the most powerful figures at The Times: early on, from Joe Kahn, who was foreign editor when Ms. Callimachi arrived and is now managing editor and viewed internally as the likely successor to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; and later, an assistant managing editor, Sam Dolnick, who oversees the paper's successful audio team and is a member of the family that controls The Times.
She was seen as a star―a standing that helped her survive a series of questions raised over the last six years by colleagues in the Middle East…. Ms. Callimachi's approach to storytelling aligned with a more profound shift underway at The Times. The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services. And Ms. Callimachi's success has been due, in part, to her ability to turn distant conflicts in Africa and the Middle East into irresistibly accessible stories.
Not only did The Times fall in love with the story, many of its top people seem to have fallen in love with the storyteller. In addition, the paper may have gotten carried away in its attempt to become a multimedia monster, instead of a "stodgy", old-fashioned newspaper. Personally, I would prefer a return to the "stodgy paper of record" rather than have it turn into a 21st-century version of the yellow press.
What is clear is that The Times should have been alert to the possibility that, in its signature audio documentary, it was listening too hard for the story it wanted to hear―"rooting for the story," as The Post's Erik Wemple put it on Friday. And while Mr. Baquet emphasized in an interview last week that the internal review would examine whether The Times wasn't keeping to its standards in the audio department, the troubling patterns surrounding Ms. Callimachi's reporting were clear before Caliphate.
The following account of an earlier story reported by Callimachi displays almost exactly the same pattern as Caliphate with only the details changed.
Take, for example, one story from 2014. The article…describes a Syrian captive of ISIS, who was going by the name of Louai Abo Aljoud, who "made eye contact with the American hostages being held by the Islamic State militant group"…. The story is told with verve and confidence. As a reader, you feel as if you were there. But elements of the story were shaky: By the time, in Mr. Abo Aljoud's telling, that he was trying to alert the U.S. government that he had seen the hostages, the Islamic State no longer controlled the area the prison was said to be in. Mr. Abo Aljoud had told The Wall Street Journal the same story, and The Journal passed on it because journalists there didn't believe him, two of those involved told me. And the Syrian journalist who assisted Ms. Callimachi on the story and interpreted the interview, Mr. Shoumali, told me that he "warned" her not to trust Mr. Abo Aljoud "before, during and after" the interview, in vain. (Ms. Callimachi said that she didn't recall the warnings before publication, and noted that they don't appear in correspondence between her and Mr. Shoumali before publication.) Mr. Shoumali said he came away from the experience alarmed by her methods.
"I worked for so many reporters, and we were seeking facts. With Rukmini, it felt like the story was pre-reported in her head and she was looking for someone to tell her what she already believed, what she thought would be a great story," said Mr. Shoumali, who was a reporter for The Times from 2012 to 2019 and had a freelance byline this August. … Eight days after the story was published, Mr. Shoumali wrote to Ms. Callimachi and other Times reporters, in an email exchange I obtained, saying that "Syrian contacts are raising more and more questions about the credibility of one of our sources" and that Mr. Abo Aljoud had changed details of the story in a conversation the two men had after the story was published. …
Last month, that same cloud of doubt descended on Caliphate. And Ms. Callimachi now faces intense criticism from inside The Times and out―for her style of reporting…. But while some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.
Just like this story, Caliphate relied almost entirely upon one source, and Callimachi appears to have disregarded or downplayed warning signs that the source was unreliable. Also, both Callimachi and others at the Times were focused not on finding out the truth, but on defending their work.
…[W]hen [Derek Henry Flood] mentioned that he was in the northern city of Manbij, Ms. Callimachi wrote back urgently, and quickly hired him for a curious assignment. She sent him to the local market to ask about a Canadian Islamic State fighter called Abu Huzayfah. The assignment…was…quite strange in its specificity…. Ms. Callimachi was singularly focused. "She only wanted things that very narrowly supported this kid in Canada's wild stories," he told me in a phone interview.
…[H]e was part of a frantic effort at The New York Times to salvage the high-profile project the paper had just announced. Days earlier, producers had sent draft scripts of the series, called Caliphate, to the international editor, Michael Slackman, for his input. But Mr. Slackman instead called the podcast team into the office of another top Times editor, Matt Purdy, a deputy managing editor who often signs off on investigative projects. The editors warned that the whole story seemed to depend on the credibility of a single character, the Canadian, whose vivid stories…were as lurid as they were uncorroborated. …
The Times was looking for one thing: evidence that the Canadian's story was true. … Across the Middle East, other Times reporters were also asked to find confirmation of the source's ties to ISIS…, But instead…they found that ISIS defectors had never heard of him.
Yet, only Callimachi was reassigned.
The New York Times can regain and deserve our respect by doing the following in the future:
- Love the truth more than a "story".
- If you do fall in love with a story, subject it to at least as much skepticism and scrutiny as you would one that you hate.
- If reasonable criticisms of a story are made, don't dismiss them or attack the critic.
- Don't look solely for evidence to confirm a story, but seek out disconfirming evidence.
- "Caliphate (The New York Times)", Peabody Awards, 12/18/2020.
- Mark von Hagen, "The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won", History News Network, 7/24/2003.
- "New York Times Statement About 1932 Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Walter Duranty", The New York Times, accessed: 12/21/2020.
- See below.
- Leslie M. Harris, "I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.", Politico, 3/6/2020.
- Peter Wood, "Pulitzer Board Must Revoke Nikole Hannah-Jones' Prize", National Association of Scholars, 10/6/2020.
How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 2:
News Sources Vs. Familiar Quotations
As I mentioned in the first entry of this series1, amateur and professional fact-checking differ in many ways. One such way involves quotes, which present different checking problems for professionals as opposed to amateurs. In Part 1, we looked at four ways in which quotes can go wrong. In this part, we'll examine two broad categories of quotes that amateur quote-checkers should treat differently than the professionals:
- Quotes of News Sources: Professional fact-checkers spend considerable time and effort checking quotes from news sources in books or magazine articles. Part of the reason for this is the danger of lawsuits from interviewees who think that they have been libelously misquoted2. You, as an amateur quote-checker, don't need to worry about being sued for libel.
When reporters privately interview a source, the only way to check a quote is to listen to a recording of the interview, check a transcript, or contact the source directly. Unlike the professional, you won't have access to the reporter's recordings or a transcript if any, and you probably won't want to contact someone directly to verify quotes; moreover, in most cases you won't have the contact information necessary to do so.
However, if a quote is from a report on a public event then there may be either audio, video, or a transcript that can be checked. You should be able to tell from the context of a story whether a quote comes from a news conference, a speech, or a radio or television interview, as opposed to a private interview. If the quote is taken from a public appearance, there is a good chance that it can be checked.
Don't assume that a quote you read in a news story must be correct. Most newspapers don't have fact-checkers, and we saw in Part 1 a case of quoting out of context in news stories by a major American television network. In that case the quote came from a phone call to the police, and a transcript was available that could be checked.
While there have been some infamous cases of reporters who made up interviewees and their quotes3, bogus quotes or misattributions are not the most likely type of misleading quote in news stories, and in such rare cases you probably won't be able to fact-check it. Instead, you're more likely to find either misquotes or contextomies in news articles.
- Familiar Quotations: These are the kind of quotes that are frequently used as epigraphs to articles or books, and can often be found in John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, hence what I call them. They are also among the easiest to check―at least, if there is a citation―and there are many reference sources in addition to Bartlett's for such quotes if they're genuine.
Such quotes are also frequently used for propaganda purposes, usually taking one of two forms:
- Quotes from Famously Wise or Good People: If you have a cause you want to push, what better way to do so than to find a quote from some famously wise or good person that seems to support it. If you can't find an appropriate quote, then you can misquote, misattribute, or make one up; after all, it's for a good cause!
- Quotes from Infamously Bad People: This is the flip-side of the previous technique. If you want to condemn something rather than support it, what better way than to find some notorious baddie who supported it. Again, don't let the fact that the baddie didn't actually say it stop you!
Since these are the types of quote that you will usually find in collections of quotes, whether in books or online, you can start by consulting reliable secondary sources, such as Bartlett's. Of course, it usually takes some years for a quote to make it into such reference works―the current edition of Bartlett's is the eighteenth, from 2012―so if it is a recent quote you probably won't find it.
There's an unfortunate asymmetry in using such collections: If you find the quote you're searching for in a reliable collection of quotes, and it's attributed to the correct person, then you can be reasonably sure that it's genuine. In contrast, if you cannot find it, that is no guarantee that it is misattributed or bogus. In such a case, one thing you can try is to search for the quote alone, without including the author's name. If the quote is a misattribution, you may be able to find it in this way, but such collections seldom include bogus quotes.
Bogus propagandistic quotes are sometimes checked by the professional, post-publication fact-checking groups. For instance, the alleged Hitler quote used as an example in Part 1 has been checked by Politifact and even The Straight Dope4.
If a quote comes with a proper citation you should consult the primary source if you can find it. If it's from a book, magazine, or newspaper, you may be able to find it at your local library, but more and more primary sources can be found and searched online. In contrast, if it does not have such a citation―for instance, if it's just the name of the alleged author―consider it bogus until proven correct. A genuine quote should come with chapter and verse, and it's suspicious if it doesn't. Despite the relative ease of checking them, my experience suggests that famous quotations are rarely if ever checked in most publications.
- For earlier entries in this series, see:
- Why You Need to be Able to Check Facts, 9/8/2020
- Fact-checking Vs. Nit-picking, 10/20/2020
- How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 1: Four Types of Misleading Quote, 11/27/2020
- According to Sarah Harrison Smith, the lawsuit of Jeffrey Masson against Janet Malcolm over a magazine profile led to increased vigilance in fact-checking quotes at The New Yorker, which ran the article, and other publications. See: The Fact Checker's Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right (2004), pp. 64-69.
- For one comparatively recent example, see: Betsy Reed, "A Note to Readers", The Intercept, 2/2/2016.
- Straight Dope Staff, "Did Hitler ban gun ownership?", The Straight Dope, 6/16/2000.