Understanding why some people choose professions where accomplishments go unheralded
If you're even just a light reader of highbrow periodicals and you've managed to miss seeing a review of The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, you've accomplished the equivalent of standing in a blizzard without one flake of snow landing on your shoulder. With coverage in the New York Times book review and magazine, Harper's, the New Yorker blog, Salon, and Slate, "The Lifespan of a Fact" has managed one of those periodic book release PR juggernauts that writers privately fantasize about. The book is a reprint of an essay about a suicide in Las Vegas that D'Agata submitted to the Believer along with text from the wildly extended and heated argument that then ensued between him and Fingal, his fact checker at the magazine. Things started off poorly. The now-infamous first sentence alone was riddled with errors. Here's just one of them: D'Agata writes that there were "34 licensed strip clubs" in Vegas at the time of the suicide. Fingal's research suggests there were only 31, and he asks D'Agata how he got 34. "Because the rhythm of '34' works better in that sentence than the rhythm of '31,'" D'Agata replies, as if this were a fiction workshop. Things degenerate from there.
As a former fact checker for a variety of Conde Nast magazines, including around four years at Vogue, and a stint as the Research Chief at the now-defunct Radar, I took an immediate interest in the book and its coverage. While D'Agata's extraordinary and often blithe defense of purposefully printing errors and flat-out fabrications in a non fiction essay is compelling, as is his obnoxious tone with his fact checker - villains of course often make for exciting characters - I found myself thinking more about the underdog, Fingal. Specifically, how does his role as the fact checker fit, or not, within our society?
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IN A CULTURE that favors sensation, the fact checker is an anomaly, perhaps even anathema. He is the brakes on editors and writers racing toward deadline intent on dazzling readers at the expense of edifying them. He is the schoolmarm tsk tsking. He is the public defender for the unrepresented, the downtrodden, the forgotten—the facts.
As we drudge through yet another election season, half-truths, out-of-context claims, and blatant lies befall us daily in political ads and speeches, and through the media outlets that recirculate them. While we get occasionally furious, mostly, it seems as a culture we've accepted that we're being lied to. To survive one must be a cynic. And not just in the political sphere, of course. With so much content in sensational blogs and dubious sites, where the veracity of the text (and photos for that matter) can't be trusted, with corporate spin doctors obscuring the truth about every scandal, most of us are left wondering what to believe. In this environment, highly regarded national magazines are one of the last bastions of rest for a mind perpetually on guard for BS, for they employ fact checkers. Yes, errors big and small* leak through, but in practice every fact—from a Russian dissident's age, to the driving time from Montpellier to Paris, to a Madonna quote, to the proper oven temperature for baking a famous chef's bread—is checked. (And when I say last bastion, I mean it. An excerpt from a version of D'Agata's essay still bursting with errors is on the website of the NEA, which awarded D'Agata a writing fellowship. I hate to give Republicans ammo for their mission to defund the arts, but this is disappointing to say the least.)
YET FACT CHECKERS' unfortunately rare position in our current climate is not what is most noteworthy about them. What's most interesting about fact checkers is the circumstances they work under and the traits they must possess to perform their job. Generally speaking, fact checking is a largely thankless job where the person is invisible if he does his job perfectly and is only noticed for his work when things go wrong. He must work confidently, meticulously, and take accuracy as its own reward. If he makes an error the stakes can be enormous—a loss of his job, a lawsuit, the damaged reputation of a writer, editors, and a publication. He will receive no byline. This requires essentially a reverse skill set, hell, a reverse attitude about life in a culture that seeks endless pats on the back, where everyone in Little League gets a trophy—even the backup right fielder on the last place team. Where we collectively are in a mad panic to have our thoughts and actions known via lengthy blog posts, and in nugget form on Facebook and Twitter, our every mediocre photo shared on Flickr. Where we are willing to debase ourselves to have our personal dramas on reality TV. Where ads are increasingly tailored to us specifically (thanks to all those aforementioned Facebook posts). The American ethos screams YOU, the individual, are important, you must be counted, you must make yourself noticed! What type of person, in a society with these values, goes the other way and chooses anonymity?
It turns out, the lonely, lowly fact checker, is in actuality not so lonely. There is a commonality of his circumstance and traits among a select group of other professionals, a collective I call The Invisibles, and we as a culture can learn from this unique group.
Dr. Joseph Meltzer is an anesthesiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. After four years of medical school at Stanford, he went through an additional six years of advanced training. His typical work week is 80-90 hours, and it's not unusual for him to be involved in 10-12 hour procedures in the OR without a break. Yet when's the last time a patient said to the anesthesiologist post-op, "Thanks for not killing me?" The orthopedist, the cardiac surgeon, they get the praise. But in many ways, while you were off in the black sleep of modern medicine, it was your anesthesiologist who had your life in his hands. As Dr. Meltzer says, though, "If you need thanks and a fruit basket anesthesia is not for you." Granted, anesthesiologists are remunerated very well for their work, but there are other more visible specialties with roughly comparable salaries, not to mention well-paying gigs in other industries for people with this degree of intellect and work ethic. Something else drives them.
"We're not out for recognition," says Dr. William Feaster, an anesthesiologist at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, CA. "What's most important is that you feel you've done a really good job and that the patient has a good outcome. Our recognition is more internal and within the medical community." But the reward is also with the power of their position in the operating room. "We basically run the OR," Dr. Feaster notes, "and it's efficient or not based on how the anesthesiologist is working." And running the OR and safely administering anesthesia requires a "meticulous, compulsive" nature according to Dr. Feaster. "Many of us relish precision and detail," adds Dr. Meltzer.
When I talked with Pam Vu, a former colleague of mine at Vogue, and now the Research Director at Shape, it's apparent that though the gravity of a fact checker's errors are on a different scale than the anesthesiologists, they share the same fastidiousness, inner pride of their work, and joy of behind-the-scenes power. "The work is mostly a long, focused grind, being meticulous for hours on end, which of course is probably never thought of by the reader," Vu says. "Yet deep down we're all very proud of our work, of unearthing inconsistencies, but it's a private, contained self-congratulation." Vu continues, "part of the thrill is sometimes being able to control the direction of a big piece, which is fun because there is such a machine - esteemed editors, famous writer, big-shot photographer - behind an article and lil' ol' fact checker gets to alter the piece."
When people recall a performance of a world-class orchestra they mention the aesthetics of the hall, they compare a particular piece they heard with past renditions, and they appreciate the beauty of music played by virtuosos. What they don't say is "man, that piano was in perfect tune!" Yet at a baseline, that may be the most critical component of the show. Peter Stumpf, the piano technician for the renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, explains, "these concert grands are like Indy race cars." They require all sorts of complex tweaking. "There is voicing, regulation, you have to take into account the venue and the piece that's being played . . . I spend many hours and multiple visits getting a concert grand ready for a performance." The work requires an extraordinarily focused "attention to the minute details of sound. Sometimes I feel like I'm chasing a ghost into the fog." And though he is "not even in the program, ever," Stumpf feels deep reward from a silent pride in his craft. "When I am in the audience and I hear Emanuel Ax I genuinely feel like we're doing a duet—it's my piano and the artist. And I don't mind him alone getting the praise because the audience is thrilled with what he's been able to do with my piano."
Graphic designers are unique members of The Invisibles because some of their work, like corporate logos or a beautifully laid out catalogue, is indeed noticed by the end user (even if the designer herself isn't known). But much of their work is intended to be invisible. "A book is a great example of this duality," says Marc Levitt, the Creative Director and Co-Founder of MSLK, a design firm in New York. "The cover is intended to be flashy, memorable, yet inside is the opposite task. It's about conveying the author's words in an invisible manner." While some may think that the best design always grabs our attention, Levitt counters that great design often shouldn't call attention to itself. "I'm not as concerned with prettying things up as I am with the end user being engaged in the right way." While he's happy when he takes on a flashy project that brings him recognition he feels perhaps more reward for his unnoticed work. "Our work may at times be invisible but it's not insignificant," Levitt said, citing the butterfly ballot controversy of the 2000 election. The ballot, which allegedly confused voters, had "bad design. It probably cost Gore the election." The butterfly ballot was one of those moments when The Invisible, terribly, became visible. "It was a lightning-rod moment in my profession, when regular people suddenly became aware of how important design can be."
LIKE HIS INVISIBLE BRETHREN, Levitt noted, too, the refrain that most designers "have to be meticulous by nature." That The Invisibles aren't seen is largely of no consequence to them. Their reward is in the work itself, in the satisfaction both in the good result for the end user and in the private fulfillment that focused, detailed work with consequence can provide. Though I've only focused on a few members of this club, in my research I found again and again these same unique traits in other Invisibles, and I've been humbled by them. Meticulousness, savoring great responsibility, and seeking only internal satisfaction are a trifecta of traits—a near antithesis of our societal ethos of insouciant attention-cravers—as a culture we'd all do well to follow.
When we read a respected magazine, though we may disagree with the angle of a piece, we rarely think of the veracity of the facts. And that's one of the reasons great magazine journalism can be so enjoyable—we're able to read it and enjoy it with our lie-detector, if not turned off, then at least turned way down (the errant Stephen Glass or John D'Agata be damned). Dr. Feaster noted that the reason we rarely think of the anesthesiologist is "because as a specialty we've been so focused and successful at making anesthesia safe." It's The Invisibles' own success that keeps them invisible. So the next time you go to the philharmonic, think of the piano tuner. If you marvel at a Gehry building, think of the engineer who figured out how to keep it standing. Send a fruit basket to your anesthesiologist. And when you read a great magazine article, take a moment and think of the fact checker.
* I nearly got fired once for failing to correct a misspelled Bottega Veneta.