Teeing off the "Three Cups of Tea" fabrication scandal, Megan and Ta-Nehisi have each expressed their puzzlement (which I share) at Greg Mortenson's pathological behavior and confessed their own fears of being discovered to have gotten something wrong (which I also share), not through deceit but through simple error or sloppiness. As a writer, you know that not every reader appreciates the difference or is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. Megan describes the feeling perfectly:
I have nightmares where a false story has gotten into one of my stories by accident; I wake up with a sick start, and the relief when I realize that it was just a dream is sweet indeed. I cannot imagine the thought process that would lead you to do this on purpose. Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce--aren't people afraid of getting caught? In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?
One reason that doesn't happen is because The Atlantic* is fortunate to have a talented and diligent fact-checking staff. As Ta-Nehisi notes, "fact-check still scares the fuck out of me," and it is, I can attest, weirdly daunting to hand over your notes--usually while bleary-eyed and demented with exhaustion because you just finished a marathon writing bout to get your piece in--knowing that someone is going to pick you apart like a lawyer during cross-examination and very likely turn up errors, small and, sometimes, large. But as strenuous as the process can sometimes be, it is, in the end, incredibly liberating because you can go to bed assured that your article has been stress-tested, poked, prodded, and scrutinized by a whole team of people who are very good at what they do. And ultimately, that's a great feeling.
*I should stipulate that only the print magazine is fact checked.