Service of Getting the Facts Right

June 18th, 2015

Categories: Facts, Mistakes, Writers

Just the Facts

This guest post is written by Homer Byington who continues to devour history books and biographies as he has since childhood and has an uncanny memory for facts.  My husband wrote:

Ashley Jackson’s Churchill, (Quircus, New York, 2014), and Harry L. Katz and The Library of Congress’s Mark Twain’s America, (Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2014), have more in common than that I just finished one and started the other.

Churchill book coverBoth books received excellent notices. The recent glowing review in The Wall Street Journal was what prompted me to read the latter, and I can attest to the quality of the writing and fresh, balanced thinking in the former. Jackson’s work reminds me a little of that great popular historian, George M Trevelyan’s. However, while the illustrations in Mark Twain’s America are lavish and stunning, it reads like it was written by a committee, which it probably was. The book is also minimally annotated and the index is a joke.

Mark Twain's America coverThese books have more in common than just success. Unfortunately, they both contain factual errors.

The photo caption under a photograph of the three men on page 5 of the insert to Churchill reads, “December 1943: The Bermuda conference. French Premier Joseph Laniel, President Eisenhower and Churchill.” The 1943 must be a typo; the date should be December 1953 when the three of them did meet in Bermuda. What is confusing is that Churchill also met with then General Eisenhower in Tunis in December of 1943, but it was not likely at that time that either of the two had ever heard of Laniel who was then living in occupied France.

On page 22 of Mark Twain’s America, the authors, writing about John Marshall Clemens, the father of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) state: “Trained as a lawyer in Kentucky, and named after the country’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he….” John Jay was the country’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I am not bragging, but I knew that before I reached high school. John Marshall was not even the second or third. The position was considered sufficiently miserable, that nobody would do it for long. That is the beauty of the Marshall story. When President Adams offered him the job, he took it and did much to make the court what it is today.

I know about editors, proofreaders and fact checkers, but I blame the authors. If they cannot get their facts right themselves, how can we trust what they write? The Library of Congress, especially, should be ashamed of itself, and Mark Twain’s America, because of the pictures, is likely to end up in every school library in the country.

What do you think? Should authors be held accountable for errors of fact in their work? Or is it all right for them to slough off the blame on their editors, proof readers and fact checkers?  Can you share other such examples of factual mistakes?

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20 Responses to “Service of Getting the Facts Right”

  1. EAM Said:

    I can think of two examples. One was from a major university where on the brochure for the School of Public Relations, they forgot an essential letter that then became “Pubic Relations.” Also, I had received an e-blast from the NJ chapter of the American Marketing Association. It had gone out with major errors. I actually wrote to the President and in a nice way asked if anyone had bothered to proof it? He replied that they had put it into another e-mail server and it didn’t format correctly. Still, there had been no test. It reflects poorly on everyone when you represent a major university or organization or your own business for that matter. It is the proofreaders’ job to make sure all mistakes are caught, but at the same time, if your name is on it, you need to take ownership for both accolades and mistakes.

  2. David Reich Said:

    Homer, there might be a few publishers in NY looking for good and reliable editors or fact-checkers.

    Seriously, we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to seeing factual errors in books, in the papers and on TV news. News organizations might possibly have a bit of an excuse since they’re on such tight deadline pressure. With books, that’s another story. I do think the author has a responsibility to get it right, but part of a publisher’s role is editing and fact-checking. Accuracy in books is a shared responsibility.

    By the way, if you have thoughts on media and marketing, feel free to write a guest post for my “my 2 cents” blog.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    EAM,

    I agree with you. Although facts are facts. And there are so many easy ways to check up on dates and places on the Internet that if someone only takes the time, they’d catch them.

    The scary things about typos is that they sneak in so easily. Take this blog. Every time I read a post in a different format–from first draft to first edit to a formatted version even to the published version–I often find basic, silly mistakes. Drives me nuts. Which is why it’s great to have an editor/proofreader.

  4. Frank Paine Said:

    Hi, Jeanne. I think I know this Homer guy, right? [LOL]

    You’ve raised an interesting question. At his request, I recently gave ongoing feedback to a published author as he completed the script of an action novel–one based on jihadist terror operations in North America. Overall, it was really well done, but a couple of times, he referred to the language of Iran as Persian. My understanding is that the language of Iran is Farsi. This is seemingly a minor error, but it detracted from his credibility. I [politely] pointed this out to him–maybe he listened–I don’t know.

    My point is that errors of this sort really make a difference, and I think the author should properly take responsibility for them. On the other hand, errors that are basically typos, such as the 1953 vs. 1943 that Homer noted, are much more understandable. I think most of us who read and write regularly have seen errors of this sort (and made them), and most of the time they are attributable to lapses of concentration. There’s an expression for this: “MEGO”, or “My eyes glaze over.” This is the kind of thing that editors are best suited to help with, especially when an author is a fast writer. That tends to multiply the errors.

    So, to answer your question, yes, authors should be responsible for errors of fact, but for the proofreading sort of error, we can understand the value of the editor.

  5. Anonymous Said:

    Jeanne, you and Homer might enjoy this book, a true compilation of emails between a journalist and his factchecker, who come to virtual blows. It is hilarious and thought provoking: how important is accurate minutia in the telling of a dramatic story?

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Lifespan-Fact-John-DAgata/dp/0393340732

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    I wonder if proofreaders still work at any paper, even major ones, as I find easy-to-catch errors of missing words, for example, that a fresh set of eyes, even if new at the job, would notice.

    Nobody seems to look at the photo chosen to illustrate a feature. In yesterday’s paper [a major news source] was a story about Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio barely speaking at an event on Roosevelt Island. The reporter wrote: “As Mr. de Blasio walked through the construction site alongside City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mr. Bloomberg stayed far behind, huddling with several of his former aids from City Hall at a safe remove.” The illustration showed the two Mayors walking through the site together and it looked as though the current Mayor was speaking with Bloomberg. The same thing happens when the headline writer guesses at what the reporter has written and crafts a misleading title.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Frank,

    You are right about MEGO. Read something a zillion times and it’s easy to miss a mistake. If I have a manuscript or hard copy in hand and if I move away from my desk to another spot in the office or in the house, I literally see things in a different light.

    I think what first caught Homer’s eye about the 1943 – 1953 typo was the reference to President Eisenhower when in ’43 he would have been General Eisenhower. If someone was reading the copy for the first time, this should also have caught their attention.

  8. Homer Byington Said:

    EAM, What a great typo. It’s a classic!

    I’m less concerned about typos than historians getting their basic facts wrong. Think of a history book as a court transcript in a murder trial, and when the transcript is submitted to an appeals court for review, some of the testimony in it is inaccurately recorded with the consequence that an innocent man hangs. I’m all for fresh interpretations of why something happened in the past, but don’t rewrite what actually happened.

    The typo I referred to had the accidental consequence of causing confusion, not laughter, but was no real problem. On the other had, the authors getting the Marshall reference wrong made me doubt the professional competence of the authors as historians. Bluntly, it ruined the book for me.

  9. Homer Byington Said:

    David,

    Many thanks for the kind offer. I’ll give a holler, if something comes to mind.

  10. Homer Byington Said:

    Frank,

    Ouch! You got me. In laziness, I always used “Persian” interchangeably with “Farsi.” You are absolutely right. I should have known better.

    But your story about your author friend touches a point that has always bothered me. Are we not all better off when we stick to writing about subjects we really know about?

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Anonymous,

    I’ve ordered the book you suggest about a journalist and his fact checker from the library. I can use a chuckle.

  12. Homer Byington Said:

    Anonymous,

    That sounds like a most interesting book.

    I had a relative who was a writer and died in the sixties. Years ago I spent a couple of days researching her unpublished papers in New Haven for a project. I found them fascinating and revealing. The unpublished stuff can often be more interesting and more revealing than the finished goods.

    As to minutia, when I read history, I want to know what happened and I will inevitably lose confidence in any historian who is more interested in producing a good story than in being accurate.

  13. Homer Byington Said:

    Jeanne,

    You are absolutely right. I first focused on the “President Eisenhower” being wrong in 1943. It wasn’t until I thought about it a bit that I realized that the problem was a typo, not his title.

  14. Lucrezia Said:

    Both editors and authors are responsible. The editors because they should have some basic knowledge of topics at hand and authors for the same reason. It would be nice if they had pride in their work and pored over the finished article several times in order to prevent possible typos concerning the dates. The cause may have been carelessness rather than ignorance.

  15. Hank Goldman Said:

    Brian Williams may want to respond to this one…….

  16. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Hank,

    Wonder what stories he’ll cover on MSNBC–benign features no doubt–and if he has any future in news.

  17. Homer Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I think you have a point with respect to the Mark Twain book which appears to have been written by a team of Library of Congress librarians, rather than by an historian. However, it takes good historians to write good histories, and if the historian is up to snuff, then the editors job is more the language than the facts.

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Life is stacked against poring over anything these days and it’s a shame. Staffs have been cut to the bone so there go the likely partners at publishing houses to review copy. Most of the authors are paid a pittance–unless they are a celebrity or Stephen King–so they can’t afford to pay someone to scour copy. Further they may be scrambling to meet other deadlines to make ends meet. The Library of Congress, one of Homer’s examples, would have appropriate resources and if not, topnotch interns anxious to add a stint there to enhance a resume. No excuse there.

  19. Lucrezia Said:

    Hey Jeanne Marie and Homer!

    The creation of a book requires teamwork, and letting hired personnel off the hook because they aren’t up to the task doesn’t fly. Unless the editor is acting pro bono, or has little to no pride in his work, he exists to produce a well finished article. As to the writer, he’s not going to have all that many deadlines to meet if he persists in carelessness. Do you read King? If so, you have observed that most of those involved are family members and friends, and that’s just for fiction. And he’s only one of many who use the same tactics. King isn’t a Justin Bieber or a Kardashian – he works hard. He’s a best selling author, who stays in fashion because of effort.

    Life has always been stacked against quality, and it gets harder. Money helps, but is not the cure-all as is believed, especially on this half of the continent. Pride and determination are better bets.

  20. Judy M Said:

    The article on Churchill and Samuel Clemens entices me to read the books.

    When McGraw Hill found misinformation in a published book, it was recalled @ great expense. I think it was a rare happening. Because John was an editor for years in the medical division, I remember him saying the book Co. had to reorder the initial # of corrected books as the schools had to have accurate info.

    Your friend has a very interesting job following highlights in the world of information.

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