About Fact-Checking and Lawsuits: “How can we defend someone who believes in little green men?”

In a post yesterday about Washington Redskins owners Jack Kent Cooke and Dan Snyder, I touched on the time Cooke sued The Washingtonian after we interviewed Harry Turner, Cooke’s former driver, who provided lots of anecdotes and details about how hard Cooke was to work for. After the story was published, Cooke, angry about our continued coverage of him, sued the magazine.

The story became harder to defend when we read the lawsuit and discovered that Cooke’s lawyers had found information about Turner that we hadn’t. The weekly newspaper in Turner’s hometown in Virginia had years earlier published a story saying that Turner claimed he had been abducted by space aliens and taken to Alpha Centuri, a star many light years away.

Our publisher, learning of the lawsuit and the new information, came to my office door and loudly asked, “How can we defend someone who believes in little green men?”

He was right—it did make the magazine’s reporting much harder to defend.

Some perspective: The Washingtonian story on Cooke was published in 1989, a time when research and fact-checking was much harder than now. There was very little online back then that helped a journalist fact-check a story. Almost all of it was done by phone calls—the most common complaint from the magazine’s  business side about editorial spending was that we were spending way too much money on long distance phone calls. But that then was how most fact-checking was done.




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