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An Ode to Fact-Checking

Mike Daisey, Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer, Niall Ferguson: Amid the truth-mangling epidemic, a shout-out to what it takes to get to the facts of the matter.

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 7:00 AM EST

It was worth it, actually. I wrote, for example, a long and exciting description of some freaky shit a certain Burmese hill tribe did during a certain world war. I won't go into who the source was or the possible sourcing mistakes made, but the upshot is that if I hadn't omitted and you had repeated this story at a cocktail party, at worst a scholar of any of several disciplines would've recognized it as a complete load of crap. At the very least, you'd have been going around spreading freaky lies. And that's how Leigh and I comforted ourselves during the aforementioned marathon reviews, comparing three hundred pages of single-spaced notes from more than 700 paper and electronic and human sources while I made changes on more pages than not.

If I'd repeated this story at a cocktail party, a scholar of any of several disciplines would've recognized it as a complete load of crap.

"I can't believe how much money and how much of our lives this has cost."

"You can't put a price on truth."

"You're right. We're heroes."

In one chapter, I riffed, based on what I'd read, on how the KMT (a.k.a. Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party) used Dodge and Ford trucks—Dodge and Ford trucks!—and how that was further evidence of how ridiculous the United States' denial of assisting the Chinese in Burma was. But you won't find that in the book, because a foreign-relations scholar pointed out to me that anyone could get mass-produced American vehicles anywhere. There were parades of them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during Vietnam; did I think the United States was also assisting the Viet Cong? I constructed, and then had to thoroughly de- and reconstruct, a story about ancient Burmese race relations after reading a mountain of history books—books that apparently every archaeologist and Southeast Asian history specialist (we consulted five) knows are based on long-discredited colonial theory riddled with "sheer fantasy" and "Orientalist cliché." I wrote an entire chapter based on a first-rate historical account of some stupid and misguided action on the part of the United States that oh, man, did I want to be true. One expert corroborated that it was. Three others said it wasn't, exactly. A declassified State Department memo settled the dispute in favor of the nays. It's cool; there was plenty of equally stupid and misguided action to take its place. See chapter six.

"No matter how hard we work, we're going to miss something. All this work and we'll still know that there are mistakes we didn't catch. It's so futile."

"No! Trophies!"

"No matter how hard we work, we're going to miss something. It's so futile."

We terrorized the United States Department of Homeland Security, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the history and epidemiology departments of several universities, the authors of dozens of books, the staffs of countless NGOs, lawyers and doctors and soldiers and refugees and multinational corporations and activists. And so on. I'd be swimming in debt without the research support that was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. But no matter how much time and money went into reporting this story, and digging up obscure and untold details (see the stats comparing eastern Burma with Darfur, chapter 12), and then making sure they were right—no matter how many months Leigh worked (eight, if you really want to know, so you can imagine how long it would take to fact-check a book in which half the narrative isn't recounted conversations about socialism and blow jobs), she still could've misinterpreted information herself, and the information could still have flaws, and though the changes we made were hundreds, the mistakes we caught were certainly not every one, and never could be, even if we had unlimited resources and lived in the Library of Congress.

Nevertheless, I'd feel pretty confident breaking any tidbit of the book out at a cocktail party full of Southeast Asia wonks. And were a scholar or skeptic I was drinking with to question my source, I'd be able to say, "Report E/CN.4/1995/65 of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights." Or "Knowles' 1829 Memoir of Mrs. Ann H. Judson, Late Missionary to Burmah; Including a History of the American Baptist Mission in the Burman Empire. No, no, the second edition."

This story originally appeared under the headline: "What is Good Fact-Checking? Amid PolitiFact’s "lie of the year" controversy, a shout-out to what it takes to get to the facts of the matter." For background on that controversy, see Round 1 and Round 2 and subsequent commentary here, here, here, here, and here.

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