True or False: Book Publishers Can Avoid the Agony of Deceit

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

To: The publishing industry.

From: Your friends in the news biz.

Re: Fake memoirs.

Two words: Fact check!

Once again, a publisher has been shocked to learn that the author of a memoir has made stuff up.

We're not talking extended lines of dialogue magically remembered from decades earlier -- that little sleight-of-pen seems to have been accepted, Lord knows why, as something memoirists are authorized by the culture to do.

No, we're talking about "Love and Consequences," in which "Margaret B. Jones" writes, as the New York Times put it yesterday, "about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods."

Margaret B. Jones turned out to be a white woman named Margaret Seltzer who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and attended an Episcopal day school. Seltzer's sister ratted her out, the Times reported, after seeing "Jones" profiled in the Times' House & Home section.

Riverhead Books published "Love and Consequences" with no hint that the author was pseudonymous, let alone a bigger, fatter liar than the immortal James Frey.

So how come you guys didn't make a phone call or two?

The humble art of fact checking means precisely what its name implies. At the better grade of magazine, poorly remunerated employees are charged with the task of ascertaining that the articles the magazine plans to publish are true.

It's a tough job, but in book publishing, no one has to do it.

Take the fake-memoir scandal that immediately preceded the Jones/Seltzer affair. As the Associated Press reported last week, the author of "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years" has admitted that she didn't "live with a pack of wolves to escape the Nazis."

Lived with a pack of wolves, people! Make a couple of calls!

In fairness, we should point out that "Misha" was published by the tiny Mount Ivy Press, not by a division of industry behemoth Random House (as with Frey's discredited "A Million Little Pieces") or of competing industry behemoth Penguin (Riverhead's parent).

Standard industry rationalizations for not checking anything are: It would be too expensive and, besides, we have to trust our authors.

We're not buying them.

On Monday, the day before the Jones/Seltzer hoax broke, Penguin put out a release about how well it had done in 2007. "Underlying operating profits" were said to be up 20 percent. Sounds like it could scrape up the cash to check the dicey stuff.

Ms. Jones/Seltzer, who allowed in an author's note that she had "combined characters and changed names, dates and places," might perhaps have been asked if "Big Mom," the grandmother she portrayed as having raised her, was one of those combined characters.

Alternatively, a fact checker could have tried tracking down the author's alleged brother, Taye, who, Jones/Seltzer told the Times, was living in Tacoma, Wash., possibly working for Sprint.

At, say, $25 an hour, that might have cost $50 -- if the checker tried really, really hard.

As for the relationship-of-trust argument, we're with Ronald Reagan on this one: " Doveryai, no proveryai." That's Russian for "Trust, but verify."

One last thing. We're not implying that we newspaper types are pure. We'd love to forget the fabrications of the Janet Cookes, Jack Kelleys and Jayson Blairs, but we can't, and we make mistakes on deadline every day.

We can, however, offer up a hoary newsroom phrase the publishing industry might find useful.

"Too good to check!" we say gleefully when we run into a great story that would likely fall apart if we made a call or two. As a rule, those stories don't make the paper.

But hey: What if publishers who wanted to put out an unchecked memoir were required to stamp "Too good to check" in large type across the book jacket?

We're thinking a little fact-checking money might be found.

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