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Musings on John McPhee’s “Checkpoints; Personal History”

September 1st, 2010 by Jessika

(Creative Commons)

Last year, one of my teachers emphasized the importance of checking facts. A single incorrect date or misspelled name would earn you a nice big “F”. While this practice may seem a little harsh, it was definitely an important lesson. If you got an article back with that lovely letter, you certainly would double and triple check all of your facts next time.

John McPhee’s New Yorker article called “Checkpoints; Personal History” takes an amusing yet somewhat scary look at the world of the fact checker, the person whose job it is to painstakingly check a writer’s piece over and over again. While I don’t intend to work as a fact checker, I can understand his or her pain. Even more, I know how vital the job is. Without fact checkers, many pieces would go to press with errors, damaging the reputation of the journalist as well as the publication. Fact checkers are especially important to anyone writing about complicated, technical topics.

I really enjoyed McPhee’s writing style. He took a rather boring subject, fact checking, and made it interesting.

His description of Sara Lippincott’s perseverance in verifying Hanford’s fusen bakuden incident was very engaging and it made me appreciate all of her hard work. The Japanese launched weapons balloons during World War II and launched them toward the U.S. One balloon was said to have landed on the nuclear reactor at Hanford, shutting it down. She tirelessly called one person after another until she was able to track down the man with the answer the afternoon the piece was to go to press.

I must admit, though, McPhee appalled me when he mentioned, albeit somewhat jokingly, that he makes up numbers, because he knows the fact checker will look up the real numbers. He also admitted to making up part of an analogy that compared a train’s air tube to an American eel’s air sac. McPhee was only guessing this comparison was accurate, leaving it up to a fact checker to verify. The fact checker called a professor at Harvard who gave a more accurate analogy: “The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish.”

With the rope fish, McPhee’s fact checker did his job, calling around until he found an appropriate answer. But how can he assume they will? Okay, I know it’s their job, and as long as he can verify a fact checker is employed at the publication, it’s a pretty safe assumption. But still that gives some of the control of your article, presumably a piece you have invested a good portion of your life in, to someone you probably don’t know. I am too much of a control freak to be able to do that.

At one point in the piece, McPhee complained about having to fact check his work when the magazine his article was going to didn’t employ fact checkers. I know it’s a boring job. But that’s part of the responsibility of the journalist, and it’s even more vital to journalist’s writing about plate tectonics or how trains work. That’s part of telling the truth. McPhee has clearly worked in a very privileged journalistic world. That world, though, is drastically changing. With multiple layoffs in the last year and more to come, it’s likely publications will employ fewer fact checkers. So journalists like McPhee can expect have to double and triple check the numbers, names and dates of their work. Hopefully, they’ll acquire a new appreciation for the lowly fact checkers still employed.

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