Some Other Conversations With A Fact-Checker

Some Other Conversations With A Fact-Checker

by Jeff Johnson

The publication of The Lifespan of a Fact, which is based on seven years of email exchanges between writer John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal, has prompted a lot of thoughtful discussion (an excerpt from the book ran in this month’s Harper’s). Unmentioned up till now, however, is that while D’Agata was emailing with Fingal, he also was engaged in a tense exchange with another fact-checker charged with readying one of his essays for publication. It was to be an epic piece of writing: concerned with the depletion of Lake Michigan’s resident sturgeon population due to faulty Federal government practices, the essay also included relevant meditations on the Oneida Indian tribe, ATM skimming devices, the BP oil spill and the Chicago Cubs. This was to go into a limited-edition magazine, Room Service, which was going to be printed on thin birch slats and distributed in André Balazs’ network of hotels. Though the magazine was never published, we were able to procure the correspondence between D’Agata and Darren, the fact-checker interning for a semester (for no credit) in the basement of the Chateau Marmont.

Darren: Hi, John. My name is Darren, and I’m the intern at Room Service that will be fact-checking your piece. It was a thrilling read. My concern is that the Chicago Cubs didn’t win the World Series in 1987.

John: “Piece?” I’m afraid I’m not sure I know to what you’re referring. Little help?

Darren: Hmmm. The essay you wrote for us. It’s great. 🙂 There are just a few questions.

John: Oh. Essay is… better? I prefer to think of what I do as an experience. At a minimum, I expect five-sense engagement with any competent reader. I’m talking taste buds. Smell. Otherwise I should hang it up. Or you should do some better reading. Either way, you won’t need to fact-check this, uh, “piece.” How adorable. Print it or kill it.

Darren: Maybe we can compromise? Everyone here wants to print it.

John: Is English really your first language?

Darren: Yes. (???) About this Cubs thing, should we not just admit the Minnesota Twins won it all?

John: As I said, that’s not a big deal. The “piece” (gag me) is just more dramatic with the Cubs winning it all. Can you feel the wave of relief that would wash over the city if this happened? It’s important for me to give that to the people of Chicago. To grant them that.

Darren: I’m thinking that they probably can’t really enjoy that since it didn’t happen.

John: That’s a detail that no one cares about.

Darren: Okay. So, regarding the fire that both teams played through, at Wrigley Field, that carried on for two games, I found no evidence of that either.

John: I’d be really upset right now if that was my problem. It’s yours. Own it. Try it on like rubberized fishing waders.

Darren: I can’t imagine anyone would let them play through it. I did find that in September of 1987, fire trucks were called to an apartment located what looks to be a few blocks away from the ball field. Ultimately that was reported as smoke from a burnt piece of toast, and no damage was done. And that would have been weeks before the World Series that the Cubs did not play in.

John: Until you’ve been near a fire, don’t presume to know the fear that hangs as heavily in the air as the smoke it produces. This fall classic was played under the threat of real uncontrollable fire. And the wooden bats… the objects these men swung to earn a living, were among the most tempting to the fire’s kiss.

Darren: I will concede that if the burnt toast somehow produced a fire that then engulfed the apartment, and the apartment building, and went into the street, and if there were tens of thousands of gallons of an accelerant poured into the street and contained there, almost like a canal, which led directly into the stadium, and into the dugouts near the wooden bats, it would be lethal. Especially if the city just stood by and did nothing, and did not have a functioning fire department, or had a fire department, but they somehow put all of their trucks on the interstate and drove them at high speeds to, say, South Bend, Indiana, and ignored the fire, and everyone on the Chicago Cubs, and the Miami Dolphins (who are a football team by the way, and have never been in a World Series) just stuck around, yes, it would be dangerous.

John: You’re right. As I pointed out in my essay, the Chicago Fire Department didn’t come because it was Easter Sunday.

Darren: I’m pretty sure that the CFD has to work on Easter. At least some of them.

John: Oh, you know this? Who’s getting loose with the facts now?

Darren: Well, the World Series is not played on Easter.

John: Duh. But in my mind it was crucial that people in the stands were wearing bonnets and seersucker. Face it, my gift doesn’t recognize your calendar.

Darren: And they never played a doubleheader in the World Series of 1987. You say the fire lasted for two games.

John: Readers don’t care about this. They will never question it.

Darren: And the a-ha “Take on Me” video was not… I haven’t found any confirmation that it was inspired by the Chicago Cubs. The guy ramming into the cartoon walls does not burst into the stadium and put out the fire. These guys were from Norway. And the song came out well before 1987.

John: Oh, well, a woman at a bar told me that. She once slept with an MTV VJ who told her all about the video’s earlier cut, that, in fact, included such a scene.

Darren: Do you have her name?

John: No. I never ask people their names. That’s so stupid. People clam up when you ask shit like that. I am not a reporter.

Darren: Liz Phair didn’t throw out the first pitch that day.

John: No one cares. She had her finger on the pulse in Chicago at that time and, as a stylist, that’s a collage I am allowed to paint. Liz Phair, The 2nd Chicago Fire, The Cubs, a boy who built a hot air balloon that runs on vomit.

Darren: I don’t think we can get away with this. Liz Phair wasn’t popular until later.

John: Is it harmful? No. Lives might even be saved.

Darren: The band Styx did not turn the Chicago River into the River Styx once a year to perform “Sailing Away.”

John: How does that make you feel though? Good, right? Like a sexual act that includes a Banana Split?

Darren: People at nursing homes were not released into the wild to forage for Polish sausage.

John: Small liberties.

Darren: Barack Obama did not play Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He did not help Ferris catch a foul ball. Neither of them had sex with Mae West.

John: They couldn’t even find his real birth certificate, right? Everyone writes his own autobiography.

Darren: They did not drive to the game with Steve Bartman.

John: We’re done here, Darren. You print it or I take it somewhere else. As a chapbook, I think I could get low six figures.

Darren: You did get the color of Bartman’s turtleneck right.

Related: What It’s Really Like To Be A Copy Editor

Jeff Johnson wants to meet for coffee and hear about your concerns. Find him here.