Fact Checking

James Frey’s questioning on Oprah today certainly restores ones belief that truth matters. Good for Oprah for changing her mind and coming down squarely on the side of honesty. Given my previous post where I said that the standard remedy of a disclaimer could go a long way to defusing this kind of situation, Frey’s attitude is interesting:

Oprah: Do you now wish you had put a disclaimer in the book, James?

James: I don’t know if I wish I had put a disclaimer in it or if I had just written about certain events in a different way. I think that would have been the more appropriate thing to do than putting in a disclaimer.”

Her interview with Frey (from which the above quote was taken) , the publisher and comments by various journalists are here.

In the part of the show where Journalists comment Richard Cohen of the Washington Post says:

Hire somebody for $25,000, $30,000 a year as a fact checker. A fact checker would have found out in a half an hour that some of this book didn’t work because the book doesn’t pass the smell test. When it doesn’t pass the smell test, you give it to a fact checker. Work it out. Somebody could have done what The Smoking Gun did.

Now that takes me back to the point I made here and here about how the net selects the best people out for a particular task based on Eric Raymond’s book The Cathedral and The Bazaar. Originating in the area of open source computer programming the key ideas is that once a problem is identified on the net the people with the best qualifications to fix it come froward with the solution. In this case The Smoking Gun solved the problem. The astonishing thing is that Mr. Cohen knows exactly who fact checked Mr. Frey and he fails to notice that hiring a $25,000 a year fact checker isn’t exactly necessary. Googling ‘fact checking’ makes a good start on finding services that could be hired to do this work if The Smoking Gun wasn’t interested. www.snopes.com which sorts urban legend from urban fact comes to mind too.

But the big news here is that a website dedicated to posting original court documents on the web broke this story. It has been by owned by Court TV since 2000, but it seems to fulfill its stated purpose of providing “exclusive documents–cool, confidential, quirky–that can’t be found elsewhere on the Web” pretty well. They say further in their ‘About’ section: ” Using material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide, we guarantee everything here is 100% authentic.” Given what they do, it isn’t exactly surprising that they could establish the absence of a criminal record in the case of James Frey.
Without the web James Frey may well have gotten away with it. Tell a believable story and claim it as non-fiction and you may well be outed much more quickly because questions spread easily and those with the skills to resolve them are out there on the web ready to get down to business. There appear to be two other more egregious literary frauds currently in the process of being heavily investigated. The case of T J Leroy and that of purported Native American writer Nasdijj. LeRoy is evidently the product of a middle class couple’s imagination, not an HIV infected former truck stop hooker. The later is evidently not a Native American at all and much of the material in his memoirs may not only be fiction, but to some extent plagiarized. As far as I know the regular media got both of these guys.


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