The Vaunted WaPo Fact-Checking Process

I’ve mostly stayed away from beating up George Will for his propaganda denying global warming. There was not much way I could improve on ThinkProgress’ and Media Matters’ multi-part response to Will.

But I’m fascinated by WaPo Ombud Andrew Alexander’s column on the controversy. It’s a vast improvement over Debbie Howell’s columns as Ombud, not just for his willingness to rethink his own early defensiveness, but because he names names of those who screwed up. 

First, the editing process. My inquiry shows that there was fact-checking at multiple levels.

It began with Will’s own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

Next, it went to The Post’s op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources. 

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will’s assertion that global sea ice levels "now equal those of 1979." I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

It said that while global sea ice areas are "near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979," sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is "almost one million sq. km below" the levels of late 1979. That’s roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn’t until last Tuesday — nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction — that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.

Here’s a snapshot of the editorial process that–journalists would tell you–makes newspapers infinitely superior to blogs.  Greg Reed sends a bunch of links. Richard Aldacushion "reviews" every link. Autumn Brewington "reviews the sources." And two more people–Alan Shearer and James Hill–"edit" the column. And these five people, plus Alexander, make up a chunk of the overhead that makes newspapers so much more costly to run than blogs and purportedly guarantee newspapers’ superior quality.

Look at the language used to describe this fact-checking process. First, Greg Reed seems to have simply collected the links that he and Will used to put together the column.  Aldacushion "reviews" every link–does this include more then assuring that the exact language used in the column appears in the source, regardless of the context from which that exact language was culled? And then Brewington "reviews the sources"–does that mean she checks to make sure they’re credible, or does she actually go back in and make sure the exact language taken from the source reflects the context and meaning in which it originally appeared?

Alexander doesn’t say–but his correction suggests a recognition that Will and Reed deliberately pulled a sound bite–global sea ice is "near or slighly lower" than 1979–out of an immediate context that also revealed that Northern Hemisphere sea ice was significantly below where it had been in 1979 and a larger context that explains why global sea ice isn’t the measure we should be panicking over. Though Alexander doesn’t really detail what goes on in the "fact-checking" process at the WaPo, he seems to suggest that it involves checking whether the exact language used in the column appears without, at the same time, checking whether that exact language was replicated with any fidelity to its meaning.

In other words, the entire "fact-checking" process seems to operate without any critical thinking.

And it’s that definition of "fact"–exact language ripped out of context with no critical thinking added in–that gets George Will and his ilk on the pages of the Villager press, treated as credible pundits. It’s a process that–by design–is easily abused by people like Will to create propaganda. 

Which is, I guess, an appropriate time to thank my readers. I don’t know that I’m any smarter than George Will, but I’ve surely got better fact-checkers. 

20 replies
  1. freepatriot says:

    5 people fact checked this shit, and they still have jobs ???


    they don’t know shit about fact checking

    key word, ya stupid bastards, its “FACT” Checking

    nobody said anything about QUOTE checking

    all these wapo editors must have been sick on the day they tough that at journalism school

    or maybe part of the wrapper was missing from the cracker-jacks box they got their degrees from

  2. Petrocelli says:

    “I don’t know that I’m any smarter than George Will …” – Marcy

    Trust me, you are infinitely smarter than George Will and his peers.

  3. freepatriot says:

    Trust me, you are infinitely smarter than George Will and his peers

    and if somebody smarter than you DOES happen to show up, we’ll let you know

    so far, you’re good …

  4. manys says:

    There was a great article a couple weeks ago in the New Yorker about fact-checking and the lengths that they went to in actually verifying facts. The WaPo seems to fall short of that mark.

    • emptywheel says:

      New Yorker does do a good job. Which is why it’s amazing that the guy with the most sensitive sources–Sy Hersh–does his work for them. (Mayer too). If you can double check their work, then you can double check George Fucking Will.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It would be more fun to check Sy Hersh’s, but then he’d have to gag me with bourbon and make me promise to keep it hush, hush and on the QT. I could live with that, like being a fly on I.F. Stone’s wall, or yours.

            • Petrocelli says:

              Thanks, Sy Hersh said that, come Jan 21st, a lot of folks would be sharing a lot of info. on all the wrongdoings of BushCo.

              Every week that goes by without a word from him makes me think that he’s really uncovering some serious stuff.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Will is a legacy. Since the days of the great columnists and Op-Ed writers from Mencken to Alsop to Apple and Safire, and now the Krugmans and Brookses [sic], I suspect they’ve operated in a fact-checking-free zone. They’re headliners. It’s their opinions, their marquee value that counts. Who cares exactly how many “Communists” were in the US State Dept. circa 1949? The columnist wants to know what we should do about it.

    Or not. Global warming is as much in dispute now as evolution. Will wants to “teach the controversy” to avoid taking steps to respond to it. No doubt he has reasons for this logical to him. They may relate to avoiding short-term costs lower long-term prospects for his corporate admirers. But if he wants his opinion respected instead of being used to wrap the garbage (once common, before the days of a trillion throwaway plastic bags), he’d better check his facts and their context. Or retire along with Bill Safire to lament his woes among the country, golf and yacht clubs that will pay handsomely to hear him affirm their self-interest.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Five people checked this” could be ten or twenty if the editorial position is that nobody contradicts George Will. If that’s the dynamic, then underlings check raw cites for clerical errors. Errors of substance, i.e., the words quoted were entirely taken out of context or, as here, pervert the original context, they won’t look into.

    That power may be a legacy, an outgrowth of Rove-like twisting of facts-into-opinion in order to make one’s statements harder to challenge, or an expression of Fred Hiatt’s reliance on his marquee names to make a profit. Or something else.

    The consequence of this business model is bad facts, out-of-context opinions that distort public awareness and public policy. Who’s to say whether that’s the intended goal? The sun might rise in the West tomorrow and Obama might reveal the full extent of his predecessor’s crimes and distortions.

  7. MrWhy says:

    From the University of Illinois website:

    Sea ice extent averaged over the Northern Hemisphere has decreased correspondingly over the past 50 years (shown right). The largest change has been observed in the summer months with decreases exceeding 30%. Decreases observed in winter are more modest.

    The key element is that permanent ice cover is shrinking. Multi-year ice is disappearing.

  8. azportsider says:

    Freepatriot has the right of this: it’s supposed to be FACT-checking, not QUOTE-checking.

    I also want to sign on with Petrocelli: yes, you’re infinitely smarter, not to mention vastly better informed, than Will could ever hope to be.

  9. Mnemosyne says:


    In other words, the entire “fact-checking” process seems to operate without any critical thinking.

    In preparing copy for newsprint, against a tight deadline, time may preclude anything other than a surface check to be sure the links are from the sources cited, and perhaps a quick check to be sure the quotes are accurate.

    WPWG has no such excuse. Those folks operate on very long deadlines and have depth of staff that other organizations can only dream about.

    But absence of critical thinking? Oh yes, sounds about right.

  10. JTMinIA says:

    If Krugman continues to appear on the Sunday morning shows with Will, then we might see a change in the latter’s behavior. Already, at least twice, Krugman has taken Will apart and both times it seemed to have an effect.

    With that said, I can foresee two possible changes in Will. One is to be more careful, which is probably too hopeful to have any chance of actually happening. The other is that Will uses his op-eds to be even more outrageous, since he’ll have to be more careful on Sunday mornings. This is what I expect.

  11. gmoke says:

    Will has been a shill for most if not all of his life. He has been a publicly exposed shill without any credibility since the 1980 election when he briefed Reagan for his debate with Carter (using a stolen briefing book) and then had the stone gall to critique it on ABC News without mentioning his conflict of interest. Petulant, arrogant fop, he should be laughed out of every public forum he appears in.

  12. jimhicks3 says:

    For me it goes far beyond ‘fact checking’. I’m listening to a NPR report on al-Haramain and after following EW’s analysis etc. it’s like listening to a couple of kindergardeners in the sand box talking about mommy & daddy & what they did last nite. The reporting is so infantile & superficial it shouldn’t be called reporting. So why do I listen to NPR? Cuz when Amy Goodman is done at 10:00 sometimes I want someone in the room just to keep me company. But that doesn’t last long cuz ultimately I begin to listen & have to turn it off.

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