One final note on George Will

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I've been ruminating over the Washington Post's ombudsman's response to George Will's climate change denialism. I think Hilzoy said a mouthful, but one thing still sticks in my craw. Here is Post ombudsman Andy Alexander explaining George Will's fact-checking process:

Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will's column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

I've done some work for newspapers, and, if I may say, am somewhat familiar with how they work. Magazines (like this one) generally employ fact-checkers, whose entire job involves verifying the veracity of every sentence in a story. Like all writers here at the Atlantic, when I file an article it's annotated with references to every fact in the story. A checker than verifies those facts by checking documents, calling sources, checking notes, watching video etc. The process still isn't perfect and sometimes we fuck up.

But it's important to understand that newspapers, in general, don't have people who "check facts to the fullest extent possible." The fact-checking generally falls on the writer, and when there's an error (unless an editor inserted the error) he takes the heat for it. This is the whole reason why a Jayson Blair could exist--for the most part newspaper editors go on faith. Editors and copy-editors do look out for things that don't "smell" right or raise a red flag. But they don't really fact-check stories.

I've written for New York Times in the past four years, and twice for the Washington Post's Sunday op-ed section, within the past year. I mean no disrespect here, but I wasn't fact-checked on any of those stories. Indeed, I actually made an error in one, which had to be corrected. It may be that the Post is more likely to fact-check a writer, like George Will, who's written for them for years and whom they presumably  trust, then they are a college drop-out who's had four journalism jobs in ten years, and lost three of them. But somehow, I doubt it.

I can't speak for who Will employs to fact-check his work. Nor can I, ultimately, speak for the Post's process. But let's just say if I were a newspaper editor, and you told me this story, I'd flag it. It just doesn't "smell" right.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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