Check it out

by Ted on April 13, 2004

National Review is possibly the most popular target for media criticism from liberal bloggers. Part of the reason is surely The Corner, which gives NR writers a chance to let their hair down in an easy to link (and easy to parody) format. Part of it is the strong personalities of the writers; between John Derbyshire, Donald Luskin, Jonah Goldberg, Rich Lowry, and so on, they sometimes seem more like characters than pundits. (The Rich Lowry link, I should mention, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.)

But part of the reason is surely that they just plain get things wrong with some frequency. Brad DeLong is fond of asking, doesn’t anyone over there even care?

I’m sure that they care. But that isn’t really the right question.

Last year, I was curious about the fact-checking procedures at the major reputable opinion journals, so I started calling around. It’s important that I point out that, even more than usual, I Might Be Wrong. I’ve never spent a day in the offices of any of these magazines, and it could be the case that I just asked the wrong questions, or that I missed an important step, or that every other magazine but the National Review was exaggerating. Having said that, here’s what I found.

The Weekly Standard and the American Prospect employ full-time fact-checkers, while the Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the New Republic have their armies of interns do fact-checking. I never made contact with Reason or Commentary. All of the magazines that I spoke to had similar policies and procedures. Fact-checkers were expected to get as close to original sources as possible. For example, if a piece quoted a speech, the fact-checker was supposed to try to check a transcript of the speech, although they often ended up looking at other reported stories. This is potentially very valuable; one fact-checker told me how he had changed the thrust of a piece by looking up a paper presented to an international conference, and finding that it had been misreported by others in the press. Any original quotes have to be double-checked by calling the source. I had the impression that the New Republic had the most rigorous fact checking process, for obvious reasons, but the rigor of all of the aforementioned magazines were within one standard deviation of each other.

National Review was the stand-out exception. When I called and asked to speak to the person in charge of fact-checking, I was forwarded to John Virtes, who was described to me as the librarian. (His voicemail identified him as the librarian, not the fact-checker. I’ve also seen him described as “research director“; he spends some of his time preparing materials to assist the writers.)

Every other fact-checker that I spoke to stressed the importance of primary sources and always checking quotes. Mr. Virtes said that he uses newspapers and reliable websites, and that he calls people when he needs to. Other fact-checkers told me that small changes to stories were frequently made as a result of fact-checking. Mr. Virtes didn’t say that that was the case. The difference was noticeable.

I don’t want to speak ill of Mr. Virtes, who seemed like quite a nice guy, and who surely works very hard. But he has been tasked with a responsibility that is considered a full-time job by peer magazines. At the National Review… it isn’t. Fact-checking is a third job, in addition to supporting the writers and running the library. National Review is a biweekly magazine with an extremely active website. No one could do it.

So, I’m sure that the editors care whether National Review makes mistakes. The more appropriate question would be, “Do they care enough to spend the resources to try to prevent mistakes?” And the answer is “No”.

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roy edroso 04.13.04 at 5:46 pm

Ah, but who will fact-check the asses of the fact-checking asses?

Nice legwork. But does the fact-checking policy apply to their in-house blogs? Does Washington Monthly, for example, require Kevin Drum to submit his stuff to editorial before it’s posted?

People expect less from blogs. Maybe there’s a reason for that.


digamma 04.13.04 at 5:47 pm


Ted Barlow 04.13.04 at 5:57 pm

I didn’t ask about the in-house blogs, but I’d be surprised if any of them are fact-checked. Kevin Drum’s definitely isn’t; he’s said that he’s just been asked to keep on doing what he has been doing. The Corner is definitely not checked.

As far as expecting less from blogs, I don’t think that you’ve been reading Buzz Machine. We’re going to revolutionize journalism. We’re the Segway of the 00’s, but for real this time.


bob mcmanus 04.13.04 at 5:58 pm

I was going to comment on partisan lines, but the Standard goes against that grain.

Did you check the Spectator? Emmett has a reputation to protect, you know.


Ted Barlow 04.13.04 at 6:13 pm


No, I didn’t. Although, in Blinded by the Right, David Brock says that in his whole time writing for the old Spectator, he was never fact-checked.


Motoko 04.13.04 at 6:38 pm

To be honest, when it comes to some things Jonah can out-fact-check everybody.


GMT 04.13.04 at 10:26 pm

The Weekly Standard and the American Prospect employ full-time fact-checkers

Doesn’t seem to have helped David Brooks, which yet again is a disaster for his pesky wannabe: George Will.

No such Canadian institutions. Quadruple. Quintuple. No…wait…


Matt Weiner 04.13.04 at 11:34 pm

I like this one myself:

Excerpts from a cassette tape labeled “For Immediate Destruction. Do NOT [underlined four times] accidentally mail this out with the promotional materials. Kathryn-Jean, THIS MEANS YOU”, which I found in my mailbox today, along with various promotional materials from the National Review:

gmt, what are you talking about? Ordinarily that would be a hostile question, but in this case I’m just smacking my lips.


Matt Weiner 04.13.04 at 11:36 pm

(er, the question to gmt is different from the VVH Corner parody. Sorry ’bout that.)


Kriston Capps 04.14.04 at 5:13 am

I might change your John Derbyshire link.


Angry Bear 04.14.04 at 9:13 am

Ted–Perhaps your research explains this from Clifford May’s column :

President Roosevelt waited until after World War II to put in place a commission to investigate what mistakes led to Pearl Harbor.


It speaks volumes that, while May is way off because Roosevelt issued an order in 1941 establishing a commission to investigate Pearl Harbor, that error is, amazingly, only the second most incorrect “fact” in May’s sentence.


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