Everyone's a Fact-Checker

The Jonah Lehrer scandal and its fallout highlight the Internet's ability to find—and punish—liars.


A recent spate of fact-checking scandals plus an influx of persnickety pop-culture followers show the power of the Web to expose errors and outright lies in everything from politics to TV shows.

Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey, John D'Agata. If one were to call these men journalists he might consider putting an asterisk next to the term, the way that symbol was etched onto Barry Bonds's home run record ball after he was accused of using steroids. Lehrer is but the latest, and most high-profile, in a string of writers busted this year for falsifying quotes or other text. Lehrer's troubles started in June when it was exposed that he had "self plagiarized" earlier articles he had written elsewhere for posts on the New Yorker's website. After the buzz died down Lehrer still held onto his position as a writer for the magazine. That is until the second, and much worse, scandal hit a few days ago. In a devastating piece for online magazine Tablet, Michael Moynihan uncovered that Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his bestselling book Imagine.

While we have journalists to thank for the detective work of bringing Lehrer's deceptions to light, it is perhaps the power of online interconnectivity that truly brought Lehrer down. From the comment sections on high traffic sites like the New York Times, where "Shame on him...how on earth did he think he wouldn't get caught in this age of the Internet?" was one of over 400 comments on an article outlining the scandal, to blogs to Facebook, the Web has been ablaze over the controversy. And of course there is Twitter, where, if you search #JonahLehrer prepare your scrolling finger for a severe workout to make it through the endless list of tweets. "Jonah Lehrer would write a great piece explaining why people like Jonah Lehrer make things up," Chadwick Matlin, an editor at Reuters, tweeted, bringing some snarky humor to the situation. The debacle has even spawned satellite tweet streams. A defense of Lehrer in the New York Observer written by Paul Tullis (a former colleague of mine) is now the subject of its own Twitter debate. "I call BS," one of the less vitriolic tweets, was written by Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student (this is in addition to the heated comments section below Tullis's article itself on Observer.com). It's impossible to tell which emotion is the ultimate driver of people's response to the news: indignation or Schandenfreude. But either way, the electronic mob has spoken: Lehrer must go. (And so he did. Houghton Mifflin pulled his book from circulation, and Lehrer resigned from his position at the New Yorker.)

While the Lehrer scandals are confined to the world of journalism, they are just one piece of a broad-based movement of populist interest in fact-checking. Since the beginning of the republic (not the American republic, I'm talking the Greek republic) politicians have resorted to half-truths and bald-faced lies. And while tenacious reporters and informed citizens have tracked these falsehoods over the years, until now they've lacked the interconnectivity and real-time capabilities of the Web to amplify their findings. Sites like the Washington Post's Fact-Check column and FactCheck.org, which draws hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month, often provide fodder for public fascination with fact-checking. In a meta fact-check, Snopes, the grandaddy of online truth-telling, which clarifies rumors on everything from Rush Limbaugh's draft avoidance to the notion that Lady Gaga's perfume contains blood and semen (alas, this is not true), was itself fact-checked by FactCheck.org.

As the average citizen is increasingly schooled in the deception that photographic editing can produce, photographic analysis both high and low is proliferating. On one end there is Errol Morris's blog for the New York Times, where, in an extraordinarily exhaustive three-part series dissecting the veracity of specific Crimean War photos, comments reached into the thousands. On the other end is Photoshop Disasters, a site dedicated to exposing heinously fake post-production in magazine editorial, advertisements, catalogs, and the like. While their posts at first glance are just delicious takedowns often of models or celebrities so resented for their looks, ultimately the site is a subversive and necessary counterweight to the artifice of unattainable beauty.

Perhaps the biggest and easiest target for IEEs (Internet Error Exposers) are period piece television shows and films. In his blog Prochronisms, Benjamin Schmidt, as he puts it, "looks at historical changes in language by algorithmically checking historical TV shows and movies." It is likely none has received more scrutiny than Mad Men. Utilizing tools like Google Ngram viewer, he busts Mad Men for using terms or phrases in dialogue that at the time period the show takes place either didn't yet exist or were so obscure as to be implausible for a character to use. An actress getting a "callback" was a "candidate for the worst anachronism of the season" Schmidt wrote, since that term wasn't popularized until years after the show's depicted era. His blog even features extremely dense graphs that visually display varying degrees of anachronistic egregiousness of different terms used on the show.

But why stop at language? The legion of typeface nerds (of which I consider myself an amateur member) regularly post about shows and movies using fonts in period pieces that don't belong there. On his blog, graphic designer and typeface expert Mark Simonson busts Gangs of New York for using a "straight apostrophe" on a poster in the film. "Straight apostrophes and quote marks did not exist in typefaces until the advent of digital type in the 1980s." Take that, Scorsese! He of course breaks out his magnifying glass for Mad Men, too. Here he is on the show's Gill Sans faux pas:

Gill is used quite a lot in the series, mainly for Sterling Cooper Advertising's logo and signage. Technically, this is not anachronistic. And the way the type is used--metal dimensional letters, generously spaced--looks right. The problem is that Gill was a British typeface not widely available or popular in the U.S. until the 1970s. It's a decade ahead of its time in American type fashions.

Let's not forget about the clothing. Oh, the clothing! On the HistoryofEuropeanFashion blog Abigail Westover takes on several historical films in a post. Here she is on Braveheart:

It is obvious that the costumes of the nobles were well-researched and well-made, for they usually correspond directly to the fashions brought into style around 1300, including Isabelle's hair cauls, veils, and gowns with both tight and trailing sleeves. The only fault would be that the princess's hip belts and girdles are more similar to those worn half of a century later. However, the peasants costumes are not quite accurate because the belted kilts worn by the main characters were actually not worn until the 1700s.

By my read, the bulk of movie and TV show fact-checking is less of a "gotcha!" nature, and instead emanates more from a place of love for words, fonts, clothes, or what have you. This type of attention to minute detail on our entertainment, for which the need for accuracy has far less gravity than in politics or journalism, can be constructive and edifying. Somewhat counterintuitively, pointing out errors in the productions it enhances a viewer's awareness of the detail that goes into their creation. I love that people are thinking about and noticing these things. It makes me appreciate the deep knowledge that experts (obsessive amateur and professionals alike) possess.

Moving from TV shows and movies to our other main form of entertainment—sports—we saw suggestions that the powers that be sometimes fear the IEEs. At the beginning of the year I reported on the NFL's "All 22" brouhaha. The All 22 is film footage of football games that shows the entire field and all players, something that regular TV viewers don't get to see. Here is a Wall Street Journal piece on the topic:

Charley Casserly, a former general manager who was a member of the NFL's competition committee, says he voted against releasing All-22 footage because he worried that if fans had access, it would open players and teams up to a level of criticism far beyond the current hum of talk radio.

In other words, he feared an army of amateurs exposing players' and coaches' errors that otherwise have been occurring off-screen. (This spring the NFL decided to release the All 22 footage of games. It remains to be seen if Casserly's fears will be realized.)

Perhaps the masses don't care about inaccuracies. Many Democrats and Republicans alike will believe what they want and ignore or disregard the truth. Most football fans just want a close game with a few bone-crunching hits; they don't need to dissect the chess-like movements of each position on every play. And perhaps most movie-goers or TV-watchers just want to be entertained, and as long as the show feels real, it's served its purpose. But there are enough experts within a variety of fields rabidly conversing about errors that content-creators—be they politicians, journalists, or filmmakers—are now forced to be on their toes in a way they never have been before. And that's a good thing.