Press Box

Slate’s Fact-Checking Department

There’s this reader who lives in Palo Alto …

RM “Auros” Harman

RM“Auros” Harman claims to have read practically everything published in Slate since 2000, after first encountering it during a 1999 Microsoft internship. * He says he ignores our fashion coverage and that he consumes few “Sports Nut” columns. But the remainder of Slate passes through the 29-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., computer scientist’s eyes and into his brain on a daily basis.

Auros calls Slate his “basic news source” and “a great digest.” But he’s not a fool for it. A walking, talking, error-correction algorithm, Auros spots goofs in everything from Slate’s science stories to its politics copy to its movie reviews to its “Today’s Papers” column, and he routinely sends his findings to the magazine’s corrections alias,

Like most newspapers—but unlike most magazines—Slate does not fact-check articles. Slate writers are responsible for the accuracy of their pieces, editors do their best to backstop them, and more often than anybody will admit, copy editors save all of us from embarrassment with their last-second interventions.

In the interests of accountability, Slate instituted a “Corrections” column about four years ago, and it collects and corrects between one and a dozen blunders a week for all the world to read. Auros is easily one of the most prolific “gotcha” artists currently submitting corrections to the magazine. He says he started using the Corrections e-mail alias soon after it appeared and continued expunging errors from Slate copy because he got a good response from the editors.

“My sense of the magazine is that you have a more collegial relationship with your readers than, say, does the New York Times,” Auros said in a phone conversation.

An active blogger, a California Democratic Party activist, a Slate “Fray” participant (“Auros-4“), and a member of the “Predictive Input Product Team” at Motorola, Auros reckons that he’s e-mailed Slate at least 17 requests for corrections. I met him for the first time two days ago when he e-mailed my “Press Box” alias complaining about innumeracy in a Slate piece. When I brought Auros’ name up with Slate staffers June Thomas and David Plotz, both immediately recognized him—Thomas because she’s the Corrections editor and Plotz because Auros e-mails him frequently to comment on his Bible blogging. After quick consultation with them, I realized that Slate does have a fact-check department, it works for nothing, and its name is Auros.

OK, I exaggerate. But only slightly. On Jan. 3, he bagged two Slate errors: The “Today’s Blogs” column mistakenly referred to the blog “Balloon Juice” as “Balloon Justice,” and the “Moneybox” column called the Transportation Security Administration the Transportation Safety Administration. Auros questioned—but earned no correction for—Slate’s description of the Quds * Force as an “overseas branch of Iran’s army” in the Feb. 17 “Today’s Papers” column. No sea separates Iran from any of the nations in which the force is active, he argued. He pesters us—quite rightly—whenever we write “Democrat Party” or “Democrat candidates” (it’s Democratic). In October 2006, he caught a Slate writer confusing his x-axis with his y-, and in December 2006, busted another writer for booting the name of a video game based on the “Left Behind”books (it’s Left Behind: Eternal Forces, not Left Behind: Eternal Focus). Last month he pounced on a typo (plant for planet). 

He’s even scrubbed Slate podcasts for mistakes, forcing the magazine’s editors to consider how best to correct errors in podcasts. (“Chatty” podcasts in which speakers are clearly shooting the breeze aren’t held up to traditional fact standards. Regular podcasts, such as Slate’s Political Gabfest and the 24 series, often run responses to listener criticisms, including alleged errors of fact.)

Auros calls Slate editors collegial, but I’d give him most of the credit for the magazine’s graciousness: His polymathic challenges are direct and respectful. What more could a publication want?

Before we rang off, Auros jokingly offered to vet this article for errors prior to publication. I declined, as I can’t wait for him to give it the vigorous and public beating it deserves so we can post the results in the Corrections column.


You’re wondering about his nickname? If you must know, it evolved from the name of one of his computers. * To write about errors is to doom yourself to making one. Or two. Don’t let Auros beat you! Identify mine and send the bad news to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Corrections, March 1, 2007: The original version of this article misstated when RM “Auros” Harman first encountered Slate. It was in 1999 during a Microsoft internship. He became a regular reader in 2000. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The article originally misspelled Quds as Qud. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The article misstated that Harman’s nickname evolved from his sign-on name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)