The James Frey scandal may have made the largest headlines this year, but Frey is far from the only writer who has duped the public. Take the case of Nasdijj, a prize-winning Navajo author who was unveiled by L.A. Weekly just a month or so after The Smoking Gun outed Frey. Over the past six years,“Nasdijj” (in reality a white man, and erstwhile penner of pornography, named Tim Barrus) wrote three best-selling memoirs: “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams”; “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping”; and “Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me.” As was the case with Frey, Nasdijj’s publishers were warned by highly credible sources, including the Native-American writer Sherman Alexie, that Nasdijj was likely a fake.
Why do companies such as Houghton Mifflin, Nasdijj’s publisher, fail to fact-check? Why is the book-publishing industry so indisposed to follow the example set by magazine and newspaper publishers, who generally verify all information before press time?
“Fact-checking in magazines is what makes the publication trustworthy in the eyes of the reader,” says Sarah Z. Wexler, a freelance fact-checker who has worked for magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and GQ. “People know that when they read a certain magazine, it’s not just the writer’s name they can trust but the magazine’s name, too. And the way the magazine keeps its name is by not making mistakes.”
Unlike book-publishing houses, magazines and newspapers keep a regular staff who treat fact-checking as their sole responsibility. The process is painstaking and important. “Almost all fact-checking is done over the phone,” says Wexler. “You can try to compare information with other things that are published, but even then, that’s not enough proof for another magazine to accept it as ‘fact.’”
Writers are asked to provide sources that fact-checkers can double-check with, but the hours still add up. “Anything having to do with the military or any other large, bureaucratic organization is really tough because whomever you talk to usually has to get approval from somebody else above him,” says Wexler, who once had to call over 15 people on a piece about military cowardice simply to confirm that the military had “no comment” on the subject, even though everyone knew this would be the answer.
For this reason, publishing houses claim that the profit margins on selling books simply do not allow for a fact-checking budget. Typical publishing companies issue hundreds or even thousands of nonfiction books a year. To fact-check each of these would be costly.
In addition, some writers object to the fact-checking of books, though for artistic rather than financial reasons. If memoirists were limited, for instance, to telling only those stories that could be independently verified by a fact-checker, many books might never make it to the shelf.
But other writers find solace in fact-checking. Wexler, who has also written for Ladies’ Home Journal, sees the advantage of having the book-publishing industry change: “Part of what supports the writer is not just his name but…the publishing house. James Frey was hung out to dry. The publisher just has to say the author lied to them. I would feel more confident writing for a magazine, because at least you have the magazine’s support behind you as a writer.”