Essays — October 11, 2012 12:39 — 0 Comments

We Regret The Illusion: Typos, Fact Checkers And The Cult Of Sic – Michael Thomsen

“We don’t have fact checkers,” an editor once told me, “so if there’s a mistake, it’s your ass.” I was writing a difficult story, based on months of research about a subject that had no widely accepted experimental record. In the process of working through six different drafts, we wrestled back and forth over my word choices, him trimming explanations he thought too long, and then asking for more specificity about other ideas I’d condensed into single-sentence glosses. In almost every draft I discovered a note where he would ask me to fact check a sentence he had put into the previous draft, which I’d accepted without a fight. 

He was skeptical of everything I had written, and over time the mistrust extended to his own thoughts, which he asked me to substantiate ex post-facto. The final draft wasn’t any more factually true than the first, but it was slightly easier to read and no corrections had to be issued, though I checked my email incessantly in the weeks after publication, in a nervous pre-shock, expecting to find news that I had gotten something wrong.

In many ways, writing is the art of being wrong—choosing how and why to filter out the world, to lie about it through omission—so as to make one’s beloved subject seem like a beacon, light projected out large from a slender little filament. To choose one occurrence or thing from all the others is the first and most fundamental sin that all writers must commit, a weakness that all stories can be accused of. Journalism has coded into its ethics a workaround whereby the writer zooms from the micro to the macro implications of a stories in a rote formula meant to instruct readers why this particular subject is more relevant, always accompanied by a piously hygienic language, stripped of subjective confessions and formally unable to consider biases of the writer or publication.

Writing is not finally about truth, but about what the writer loves, a subject she is willing to descend into, the liar’s murk of edited figurations that create a memento of her relationship to it in a chosen time and place. For this reason, I have always looked at fact checking and corrected errors as secondary concerns. The weakness of any given argument doesn’t lie in a misquoted statistic or wrong date, but in the choices of framing the issue and leaving out what doesn’t contribute to the writer’s relationship to the subject. There are moments of overlap between factoid and romantic thrust, but one does not debunk a writer’s romance by questioning their fact management.


Questioning other people’s facts has become a mania in recent years. Doing a bukkake dance around the figure of a writer caught in an ethical failure has encouraged a new wave of media skeptics to debunk the machine that presumes to impose its values and biases on everyone else. These range from the thrilling deluge of discovering Jonah Lehrer’s recycling and quote invention, to the indignant rebukes that attend typos and factual mistakes. In one week this September, The Globe & Mail published a story by a real estate columnist who used the platform to advertise his house was for sale, another columnist faced Lehrer-esque criticism over improper attribution of ideas and possible plagiarism, and it was all capped by a print edition headline that declared “Egypt siezes [sic] the day at UN.”

What seems to enervate many people is a failure of dogma to preserve its own public image. We desire the media to be a place where thoughts come to an end, where confusion is covered over by concrete fact. The basis of media ethics is not to tell the truth but to create a tone that can pass for truth, and so release us from the uncertainty of having to live in a world surrounded by problems we didn’t create and can’t finally address. The process writers and editors use to create this tone is inherently dishonest.

Yet few object to the dishonesty of the headline. No days were seized at the UN, the president of Egypt delivered a 40 minute speech asking for the ideal of freedom of speech to be tempered with a respect for other country’s cultures and values after an American pulp movie criticizing Islam was used as a prompt by some in Libya to attack a U.S. Embassy and kill Ambassador Chris Stevens. Days are immaterial concepts, fundamentally incapable of being seized. The language in the headline is figurative, implicitly untrue, but we read it as a necessary lie, condensing a complex and not especially original speech into something maximally dramatic. On a process level we also excuse this sleight because print headlines are always space constrained and compromises must be made. These compromises always come at the cost of clarity and truth—lying to the audience through euphemism and unnatural simplification—but we do not reject these errors. We reject the errors that make us conscious of how fragile our faith in the the media is, and we recoil at the ugliness of our need for its reductive figurations.

The New York Times’ headline for the same story was typo-free and less hyperbolic, “At U.N., Egypt and Yemen Urge Curbs on Free Speech.” Yet the headline still has a euphemistic turn. One curbs animals, the word derives from a kind of bit placed in a horse’s mouth, which later became a figurative way of describing dogs being properly leashed on walks. The language in the speech was almost entirely general, a call for discretion backed with a vague threat, but there was no mention of government issued bits to be placed in citizens’ mouths. This is obviously an overly-literal interpretation, but it highlights the transient application of ideals.

Intentionally or not, President Morsi’s speech acknowledges the problem with our mistrust of the media lies more in us than in them. He called for western countries’ media to not “seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us.”  The media does not impose itself, it expresses itself. We seek media out in every instance, paying for televisions, cable boxes, data plans for our telephones, or newspaper and magazine subscriptions—we call the media into being and invite it into our conscious lives. It is we in the audience who hesitate to acknowledge that these various streams of thoughts and fragments are always incomplete, biased, and produced under conditions where fallibility is implicit and impossible to avoid. As customers, we want these products to be whole and enduring, but as humans we know they can never be. Why do we not automatically assume everything in print is incomplete, subjective, and defined by the limits of view of the writer and her circumstances? Jonah Lehrer is not a remarkable writer or thinker even if all his journalistic methods were in order. We could have known this without the controversy, and yet many loved him because he was good at tone, authority, creating the illusion of self-contained wholes. It is truer to say that the audience is imposing the media on itself, and having discovered this happy quirk in human pathos, those who work in the media play along with the charade, attributing speculation to experts and stretching the limits of poetic reductionism for the sake of brevity or subtly dramatizing a complicated ventilation of political rhetoric so it can seem newsworthy.

Looking into ethical breaches in journalism produces a volume of examples that should make us permanently skeptical of everything written without a mea culpa or first-person pronoun. The Daily Beast recently published an account of one of Hannah Rosin’s interview subjects for her recent book The End of Men. In a phone interview stay-at-home father Andy Hinds told Rosin, “I’d never been happier or more comfortable in my own skin than I have during my three year-stint staying home with my kids.” For the sake of pushing her argument, Rosin turned this sentiment into something else, “Andy likes watching the toddlers, but he is wistful about his old life, and somewhat defensive about his new one…These days when his wife suggests that he should go back to work, Andy feels ‘terrified.’ It’s been a long time, and he’s lost the stomach for the outside world.”

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo recently made a dramatic reversal of his stance on the iPhone 5, calling it “boring” and publishing a story with a headline “No, This is Not the Best iPhone Ever.” A month later he published a story entitled “The iPhone 5 is a Miracle,” arguing mostly that its industrial design is the techo-equivalent of an immaculate conception. That one person can hold two opinions that seem to refute one another is not surprising. Humans are hypocrites, and we sound like it when we think through our way through things in writing. Yet, which story should we accept as canonical fact? Which is truer than the other? How many months will it take for the miracle claim to be reversed again, or parsed with new found critiques?

There is an admittedly large gap between articulating one’s impressions of a cell phone and reporting on politics or war, but in a way, it is the simple reporting of events that is more dishonest, not because it gets dates or facts wrong but because it presents them as self-contained, subjectively stripped of the processes that brought them into being so that the world can always be thought of as linear and causal. This happened here, then consequently that happened, and this is what this person had to say about it. Typos, plagiarism,  and simple human hypocrisy reveal the writer’s pathos as delusory. Consequently, evidence that delusions exist within the dogmatic kingdom of fact and reportage are treated with ruffled consternation, blaming the woe-begotten writer for having been caught in the act of servicing the needs of an audience.


I can’t remember the first thing I wrote that had to be corrected, but I am certain I have never written a story that didn’t have something wrong with it. There’s always a typo, a loose word, a mischaracterized thought, a wrong fact. The last correction I had to make came in a story where I mistakenly used the name of a town where an Afghan man had been killed by a drone strike as the man’s actual name. In the first draft of the story I had gotten all of this right, but in addressing some notes and condensing a few overlong passages, I became lost in a thicket of my own facts and transposed one name for the other. In another story I kept calling a videogame character Rose when her name was Elizabeth, very probably because she is shown in one trailer falling from a great height with an explosion of rose petals behind her. In another story I misspelled “tenet” as “tenant” multiple times. Worse still, my just published book of essays is regularly visited by typos and little seams of process where a deleted word or clause unmoors the grammar of a paragraph. I immediately want to interpret these failings as a lack of professionalism and evidence of my stupidity and incompetence, but they are just as much artifacts of the process of publication itself, especially in a time when fact checkers and copy editors are in short supply, assigning editors are often overwhelmed, and the amount of support energy put into any given story pared back to a minimum.

Yet, it can’t really be said that factual errors or ethical breaches make a story wrong. Rosin is not abjectly wrong because she mischaracterized at least one of her subjects, nor is Jonah Lehrer wrong because he quoted from press releases in his own stories. Nor is there an especially fruitful line of debunking to come from all the loose figurative language newspapers pass off in their headlines. All of these impulses implicate the audience as much as the media, and their desire to use language and storytelling as a means of disengagement, to reduce the incoherent noise into one perceptible signal, so that we can then begin to take it for granted precisely because the process of making it is so laden with artifice.

We pass through our daily lives vaguely wondering if we got anything wrong, and written media gives us the gift of feeling like we were right, by showing us just how some other person or group was wrong. Which is a paradox, because the technical evolution behind the media, in all its various forms, is so rich and varied it testifies to the impossibility of ever being right about anything. We might live in an age of flourishing honesty and consideration of other people’s experiences, but instead we discover those moments of sweet connection as interludes between the dueling debunkers, each competing for the role of an authority that we should know by now doesn’t exist.


Michael Thomsen is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. His work has appeared in Slate, n+1, The Believer, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Bookforum, and Billboard.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney