Wide Angle

A Fact-Checker’s Notes on The Lifespan of a Fact

Not everything checks out.

Daniel Radcliffe on the phone with a backpack on. Bobby Cannavale stands in the doorway.
Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact.
Petter Cunningham/Polk and Co.

Lucky for me, the employee handbook at This American Life says to be nice to the fact-checker. I suspect sometimes it might be hard. I am nettlesome and ask tons of questions. I pester colleagues for phone numbers so I can call up sources, but I also find my own experts, which can be a pain if they undercut a producer’s reporting—but, hey, I don’t make the mistakes, I only find them. That’s not to say our host—and my boss—Ira Glass won’t put me in my place. I remember one day I was in his office while he was writing, and I interrupted him to say: “It’s not one-third, it’s more like two-fifths.” He looked from his computer screen to me. He let a silence bloom.

“Christopher,” he finally said. “Nobody will even know what that means. One-third is good enough for the radio.”

We moved on.

But I can’t quite move on after seeing the Broadway production The Lifespan of a Fact, adapted from a real interaction between a writer and a fact-checker at the Believer. I just never have dealt with a writer so outlandish as the one played by Bobby Cannavale. He goes by the name John D’Agata. Never heard of him? It’s OK. You will. In 1,000 years, his essay “What Happens There” will be as widely read as Herodotus. He sees into the abyss while writing about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager, so if his masterpiece is riddled with inaccuracies, which a fact-checker flags in a spreadsheet 130 pages long, it’s fine because the writing is truer for all the lying. D’Agata’s prose is just too beautiful, he says, to use the more accurate “thirty-one” so he had to swap in a “thirty-four” to hit a more aesthetically pleasing rhythm. I tried to check out his claim but couldn’t get Shakespeare on the phone. I suppose I’ll have to trust the great bard gave D’Agata a standing ovation from the grave. I do know that, when challenged, the essayist screams poetically erudite zingers, like calling the fact-checker a “toddler shit.”

I mean, who dreamed this guy up? I don’t know any serious long-form literary editor who would tolerate a writer like this, even with the fancy professor of creative writing pedigree. Yet he’s fawned over and indulged by Cherry Jones, playing the supposedly esteemed editor Emily—who works for a magazine that goes nameless, though it’s clearly on par with the high-end places like Condé Nast, which has an ample budget for fact-checking departments. Well, not this glossy. It’s apparently broke and an intern gets the job. That would never happen at a major publication.

It’s just Broadway and supposed to be fun, so who cares, right?

And so I suspended my disbelief and laughed, especially at Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the fact-checker, Jim Fingal. I saw my young, eager intern self on the stage, and his frantic worry about whether some bar with dancing women wearing nipple pasties should also be considered a strip club is an authentic concern, albeit a minor one, that I’d raise with a producer. I also happen to dress like Fingal, in the same basic Brooklyn prep: ratty sweaters over untucked Oxfords, khakis, and Adidas (though my sneakers are Nikes—the Greek goddess of victory, by the way, which I am sure Fingal would also note). Oh, also like him? I have a taste for craft ales. After we wrap an episode of the show, the producers tend to drink whiskey, but I grab an IPA from our red fridge.

So, yeah, a few things rang true.

But I also found that my disbelief could not remain suspended. It drove me nuts that the audience was going to leave the theater believing D’Agata’s existential grandstanding about numbers was worth sincere thought.

Sure, Ira and I often civilly discuss things like immigration stats, which aren’t always as clear cut as you might expect, and, yes, if I were fact-checking this essay, I might call our office manager, Frances, to ask the color of the refrigerator. But that’s usually the easy part of the job. I also pretty much try to speak to anyone who appears on the show. Generally, they think it’s great that I walk through scripts with them, asking odd things like whether scorpions could survive days in diesel (yes), but I’ve also been yelled at, belittled as if a kid—I’m 41—and hung up on. Once, a man responded to my seeking his comment by reminding me of the “day of the rope” when pinkos like me will be hung. I take this in stride. People are interesting, even when mean.

(Except John D’Agata.)

The play skips over how much time fact-checkers spend on the phone. I practically live on it. Some of the conversations can be haunting. Not all that long ago, I talked to a man who was accused of sexually or emotionally harassing some female employees, and while the reporter had reached out to try to interview him a number of times and emailed him all the allegations, I still called him with detailed questions about penises, anuses, and breasts. He told me that in his city it was a warm, sunny day, but he could hardly stand up. He had to lean against a car. He told me he’d expected me to ask things like if he ever wore corduroys.

“Is this the most uncomfortable fact-check you’ve ever done?” he said.

“It’s probably not.”

“Well,” he said. “I’m still sorry you have to ask these unsettling questions.”

Later, as the long day wound down, and my mind started to race, I wondered: Did I have a humane moment with this man? Did he finally feel the weight of the accusations? Or was this guy trying to play me for a chump? Get me on his side? I’ll never know.

I do end up feeling strangely emotional about some people. We did a story about MS-13, and one mother who’d lost a teenager to gang violence declined to speak for fact-checking by sending this text: “If you could tell me you were going to give me back my son, I’d do whatever you wanted. But dead is dead. I don’t even have time for myself.” In the play, D’Agata ponders whether his mom died in her chair when she blacked out, in an ambulance before the EMTs resuscitated her, or at the hospital when doctors took her off life support. He asks with righteous sweat which is “true” (uh, she’s not dead until taken off life support, professor), but a fact-check quandary with real stakes goes like this: Does a grieving mother’s request for privacy outweigh my colleagues and I wanting to get concrete answers so we could more specifically hold the police accountable for their mistreatment of her? Ten hours before our show went on the air, a producer drove to her last known address. My colleague knocked on old neighbors’ doors, went to churches, talked to pastors, and attended a funeral. We didn’t find her. Back in the office, we reworded details to better reflect our sourcing, and the reporter headed into the studio to retrack. I’d already pushed my feelings about the heartbreaking text from my head—we had a deadline to meet.

That night when I got home I opened a cold lager. (Lager, by the way, is the craft-ale term for the lighter Buds I drink when it gets rather late into the night, and, well, I’m just trying to fall asleep.) I sat on the living room sofa, only one lamp light on. I live in a small apartment, and my 4-year-old son slept in his nook behind a curtain, and my wife, in our bed, slept behind the only door to another room. She insists we keep all the shutters closed, so people don’t see in, but before I lived with her, I’d kept my blinds open. I get claustrophobic. I tried to read the news, but I’d already read too much: MS-13 members laughing in court with a victim’s mother present. Bones gashed by machetes found scattered over the killing fields. I turned off the light. My bones itched. My thoughts spun. I couldn’t help but to think that my colleagues and I made our livings out of the misery of others.

Of course, as an essayist who acts as if he’ll be read throughout eternity, John D’Agata can’t be bothered to think about others. He has to contemplate grandiose things—like the “true” color of a brown brick. It’s a shame audiences drawn to Broadway by this seemingly serious play about serious issues will think the importance of accuracy is so silly. While I’d like counter with something like “trust in journalism isn’t some joke,” that seems just as annoying as this trite play. But I find myself returning to the assignment John D’Agata was supposed to be writing in Las Vegas, about the suicide of a single teenager. Ask yourself: How much about the world and the pain of others do you know? When you learn about them, do you think it’s inconsequential if the details are a bunch of lies?