Annals of Fact-Checking: “Did You Know He Once Claimed He Had Been Abducted by Space Aliens?”

Michaela Broyles on Twitter on July 21:

Overheard on the Myrtle Beach scanner: “We have a guy complaining he was abducted by aliens last night and that they took his blood.”
One of my strangest lawsuits at the Washingtonian started with one of our editors coming to my office door and asking, “Did you know that Jack Kent Cooke’s chauffeur once said he had been abducted by space aliens and taken to Alpha Centauri?”

The question was asked by the magazine’s senior editor who worked with our law firm to vet any stories that could cause legal problems. The law firm had notified him that Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins, had sued the magazine for publishing yet another story he didn’t like: This one was a story quoting his one-time chauffeur as saying all kinds of unflattering things about him.

It was the pre-digital days when it was much harder to check on the backgrounds of people. Most of our fact-checking was done by asking Nexis—an expensive research service—if any stories had been published on a name or subject and then making many phone calls to check quotes and facts. Back then the most common complaint I got from our accounting department was why are our bills for long-distance phone calls so high? Google now helps do a lot of the fact-checking that once was time-consuming and expensive.

It turned out that the chauffeur, the main source of our story, had once told a weekly newspaper in Virginia he had been abducted by space aliens and taken to Alpha Centauri. Our fact-checkers didn’t find the weekly newspaper story before we published the driving Mr. Cooke story.

The Alpha Centauri question did not have a happy an ending. Cooke’s lawsuit caused our publisher to ask, in a very loud voice, “How can we defend someone who believes in little green men?” Cooke dragged the lawsuit on for months, knowing that our legal fees would be as painful for us as the chauffeur story had been for him. It’s how people with a lot of lawyers and a propensity to threaten lawsuits can make journalists tread carefully.

The suit was settled for an apology and not much money but the legal bills and the anguish that goes with most lawsuits were a painful lesson in the need for good fact-checking.

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