Just the Facts December 2007

The Bald Truth

How to diplomatically pry into people's lives

Unfortunately, sources can often tell by the tenor of our checking questions what the tone of a forthcoming article may be. So while they may have been open to the journalist who originally approached them, once we get them on the line, they can become irate at what they imagine the author has and hasn’t chosen to cover. (I once had Michael Jackson’s former plastic surgeon scream at me for half an hour, threatening to sue us if we published a piece about his estranged business partner.)

So we try to err on the side of the diplomatic in our questioning. But regardless of how you couch it, there is no easy way to ask people if they are bald (or impotent, for that matter). The last time I had to ask whether someone was follicularly challenged, I went for the understated route. “Is it true that you are slightly balding?” I asked with trepidation. To which the source boomed, “Honey, I’m as bald as a cue ball!” with a laugh.

More surprising, perhaps, is how seemingly innocuous inquiries can provoke the most unexpected responses. After 20 minutes navigating through painfully private questions such as whether one particular source cheated on his wife and embezzled money from the company he established, I breathed a sign of relief that he had patiently responded to all of these trying subjects. Yet on my final question, one I considered a throwaway, about the color of his eyes, he exploded. He roared at me for five minutes, questioning the reliability of the author and the article because his eyes are not blue, but clearly hazel.

Who’s to say which facts people hold most dear?

— Yvonne Rolzhausen supervises the fact-checking department at The Atlantic.

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