I’m a solo writing operation. It’s liberating not having a boss. It’s also lonely and frightening not having a support system. I’m not a reporter. I mostly give my opinion on things. Even so, much of my work relies on the facts I cite being correct. I worry quite a lot about getting them wrong. I don’t know how many of you heard the clip of Naomi Wolf being confronted by Matthew Sweet, an interviewer on BBC Radio 3, who calmly informed her that her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love is full of grossly incorrect statements of fact that undercut her central arguments.
Wolf claimed to have discovered that British executions for the crime of sodomy continued decades after historical accounts claimed. Her colossal mistake was based on her misunderstanding of the British legal term “death recorded,” which means the opposite of what it says: No one died. It was a technical way for judges to satisfy the legal requirement of the sentence of death for certain crimes, while sparing those worthy of pardon. Wolf sat through the interview and somehow managed to keep her composure, while she was essentially told that if she’d read through the first page of Google results, she would have gotten the right end of the stick. The vicarious embarrassment was so crushing, it took me several tries to get through the whole clip.
I live in terror of making a mistake of this magnitude (or worse!) and having to live with the humiliation. I made a couple of minor mistakes in a piece I wrote about Joe Budden’s podcast. Budden corrected them himself on Twitter, and I made the changes and added a note of explanation. It wasn’t a bad experience. The piece was largely complimentary, and Budden liked it, so there wasn’t any ire driving the correction. My first in-depth journalistic piece had me fact-checking changes my editor was making. Something I hadn’t expected and honestly wasn’t prepared to do. One of the factual errors made it into the final copy and got called out in an Instagram comment. It was minor and not career-altering or particularly embarrassing, but the mistake wasn’t mine, and it was attached to my name. A similar thing happened when a glaring factual error ended up in a headline I didn’t write. It cost me a high-value share from a blue check celebrity account. The tweeter deleted it after the incorrect headline was rightly ripped in his replies. That exposure would have mattered. I’ve seen the difference those high value shares make on my stats. I have a small following and needed the boost. I got the headline changed, but I’ll never get that lost opportunity back. That happens quite a lot. Writers get all the flak for bad headlines they had nothing to do with. On top of that, rigorous fact-checking just isn’t the practice anymore. Writers are caught firmly in the middle and get left holding the bag.
Writers aren’t supported. The margins are too narrow to maintain the budgets to do so in most places. But even when the systems of support are there, they can fail catastrophically, as they did in Wolf’s case. Wolf’s book is based on her Ph.D. thesis, and is being published by a major house and distributed internationally. There were several breakdowns in her graduate program and publishing house that led to that toe-curlingly embarrassing interview. Basic research wasn’t done properly, and any discussion of the material obviously never involved an expert. Somehow, the whole thing snowballed into an entire book and a promotion tour before the errors were uncovered. Wolf and her publisher have said the necessary corrections will be made, but there’s a whole lot of egg to be cleaned off a whole lot of faces.
I’m not sure where this ongoing devolvement leaves me and other writers. I’d like to do more challenging work, but I wonder if I’ll find the support I need to get it done up the standard I want to meet. I break into a cold sweat when I think about mucking things up so badly I wind up in Wolf’s shoes. Wolf has a history of not caring much about the facts, though, so I don’t spare her too much sympathy. There are other writers who are trying, though. And they get hung out to dry when these systems fail.