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Dangers of the Printed Word

PERSPECTIVES

By Dara Horn

Last month, students flocked by the hundreds to Harvard's first Media Jobs and Internships Fair, and it doesn't take genius to understand the appeal. For would-be writers, jobs in the media are especially seductive. After spending years perfecting our use of words, we see the prospect of finally getting a chance to shine. But there is a certain danger in working in the media. Despite their alluring power, words can also escape your control. As a painful experience last August taught me, you can get yourself into trouble you would never imagine.

Last summer, I worked as an intern at American Heritage magazine. The job--a paying one--was not without its perks. The magazine was owned by the Forbes family, and the offices were in the Forbes Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There was a gym on the ninth floor that all employees were paid to use for three hours each week, and on the first floor was the Forbes Gallery, featuring Faberge eggs and Malcolm Forbes Sr.'s large collection of toy boats. I even had the dubious honor of meeting Steve Forbes. While I had responsibilities that included editing some feature stories, my primary role was that of fact-checker.

Every piece of information that entered the magazine's pages had to be factchecked, and my job--along with full-time fact-checkers--was to verify every fact in every written sentence that went into the magazine. I was to note that I had checked each word by placing a dot over it (and by placing a dot over each letter of every proper noun to show that I had verified the spelling). In an article about the construction of the Panama Canal, for example, a caption read, "A seventy-five-foot-high canal lock gate swings shut at Gatun."

My job was not only to look up "Gatun" in an atlas to verify the spelling (and to verify that it is actually a location on the Panama Canal), but also to find out whether the canal lock gate at Gatun is actually 75 feet high, and whether it is in fact swinging shut in the picture. Soon I was scanning through books about canal locks, searching through various technical reference manuals and finding absolutely nothing. A call to engineers in Panama was also no help. No, no, no, it's all wrong, they told me. The gate at Gatun is actually 77 feet high.

It didn't take long to get into the fact-checking groove. By the end of the first two weeks, I was on a first-name basis with most of the reference librarians at the New York Public Library, not to mention Jackie, the receptionist at the Trademark Hotline. I spent days checking things that authors had mentioned merely as asides: the price of glow-in-the-dark dots on highways ($3.50 each) and whether Buffalo, New York is named after the animal (no). The task was a tedious one but I actually found it somewhat entertaining. A former co-captain of my high school's quiz bowl team, I discovered that it appealed to my inner nerd. But beyond that, I sensed that under the layer of minutiae I had an immense responsibility. I felt a tremendous power in ensuring, even in the most minor of details, that my magazine printed only the truth.

A few weeks into the internship, I noticed an annoucement in the business section of the New York Times asking students to send in stories from their summer jobs. Knowing that my job would make an interesting anecdote, I wrote a short account of my experiences as a fact-checker, concluding with the thought that while fact-checking may seem like an exercise in meaninglessness, nothing could be more critical to the production and success of a magazine. With a naivete that stuns me in retrospect, I mailed it in.

The summer progressed without a word from the Times, and eventually I forgot about it. But returning from a family vacation in early August, I discovered a Federal Express letter in my mailbox from my employer, the editor-in-chief of the magazine. The letter was one of the most virulent things I have ever read: I was accused of slandering my job, mocking my responsibilities, denigrating my colleagues at the magazine and insulting my place of employment in a national newspaper. "Were you a full-time employee, this would get you fired--from here, and from almost any other editorial shop I can think of." And since I was a temp, I was implicitly dismissed.

I could scarcely have been more shocked if he had accused me of kidnapping Steve Forbes. First of all, who knew that my piece had been published? And if it had, the piece that I had sent the Times was anything but offensive--it had poked a bit of fun at the facts, perhaps, but hadn't it ended with that eloquent tribute to fact-checking? Didn't I call fact-checking the "life insurance of print media itself?"

Yes, but the Times chose not to include that part. As I discovered once I got a hold of the week-old newspaper, my piece had been picked for inclusion in the Times' roundup of summer jobs. But the paper quoted my article very selectively. The Times had not been fact-checked! The reporter who had compiled the article did nothing more than leave a message on my answering machine, asking about one of the minor facts I had quoted. In short, he succeeded in verifying that I had a working phone number. The ridiculous facts I had checked were included, but my praise for the importance of my job--the entire second half of the article--had been cut! With the stroke of a pen, I had been transformed from a cheerful, hardworking intern to a bitter, sarcastic employee. And people around the nation had read it, and had taken it for the truth.

It would be easy to blame the reporter, but for the sheer ignorance behind sending the thing in, I can credit no one but myself. I had aimlessly wandered into a swamp of mutual jealousy between magazines and newspapers for which nothing at the Office of Career Services could have prepared me. I had no idea that many newspaper reporters go out of their way to make magazines look trivial, and magazine copy-editors clip the "Corrections" columns from the papers and send them to their friends for fun. It had never occurred to me that by tossing words into the wind, I was really flirting with libel.

Iwas lucky. When I showed my editor what I had originally sent in, he actually liked it, and the two-week lapse had curbed his wrath. I was publicly exonerated at the magazine, just as I had been publicly condemned two weeks before. When I returned, I was greeted with friendly slaps on the back, the criticism redirected toward the Times. But I will never forget the supreme irony of the moment: A writer and a fact-checker, I was dragged through the dirt by force of words and misrepresented facts! I will also never forget that my exoneration was little more than a miracle. I had no real evidence to prove that I hadn't meant exactly what the Times had printed--I was just fortunate that my editor even chose to believe me.

But by far the most disturbing aspect of the incident was the personal injury I inflicted on my employer during those two weeks. From his perspective, I had insulted my job "in a national newspaper." This man had felt that I had shown promise, had offered me a summer job, had shown me the ropes in his industry, and I had stabbed him in the back.

If I had had no excuse for the piece in the Times, my worst fate would have been dishonorable discharge, or one less reference on a resume. But for my editor, who had no way of knowing how my words had been distorted, the breach of trust cut far deeper. In an industry where people make their living by sleight of tongue, I had used words in a public forum to make his magazine look foolish. And words, once flung into that forum, can cause tremendous pain.

A Hasidic story tells of a man who approaches his rebbe with a dilemma. "I have slandered my colleagues," the man says. "What can I do to take back what I have said?" The rebbe replies, "Take a pillow from your house, bring it outside into the center of town, and shake it as hard as you can until all the feathers blow away. Then come back to me." The man, impressed that his problem has such a simple solution, does exactly as the rebbe tells him, shaking out the feathers in the pillowcase until they have all blown away, carried on the winds. When he returns to the rebbe and announces what he has done, the rebbe says, "Now go out and find all those feathers and put them back in the pillowcase."

Words, once released into print, can change people's thoughts and opinions forever, and they can never be taken back. Journalism is powerful because it has the potential to be dangerous, and one of the most critical sensitivities a journalist can have is an awareness of that horrifying potential. No media fair can adequately prepare us for that danger. But as one who tried her best to pick up the feathers, I have to tell you to be careful, and always, always, watch what you say.

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