In one of the great venues of the nation’s capital, amid fanfare, smiles and applause, an unlikely hero was honored Monday in the Kennedy Center’s august Hall of States. A new hero.
The Citizen Fact-Checker.
It was a rare, center-stage moment that celebrated a crucial and long overlooked art being practiced daily in Washington.
This was an ode to the behind-the-scenes sticklers, bean counters, bureaucrats and perfectionists who make the nation run on correct numbers, accurately placed decimals, properly placed modifiers and quadruple-checked calculations.
These days? In an era of “alternative facts” and fake news, fact-checkers are on fire.
Ryan Martin does this kind of detail work as a staffer for the House Ways and Means Committee, analyzing complex social policy, running the numbers, writing the speeches, hacking through the budget figures.
And his attention to detail couldn’t be stifled on a casual visit to the Kennedy Center a while ago.
Like most folks who go there, he walked the red carpet of the soaring Hall of States, head tilted all the way back, looking for his state flag.
Utah! There it was.
“Then I saw the 1647. And thought, ‘Huh’,” he said. “We all remember ’47. All the parades and Pioneer Days I went to, you always know it’s ’47. But 1647?”
There are two dates on the flag. One is the year that pioneers led by Brigham Young settled in the Great Basin, which is 1847, the other is the year it became the 45th state, 1896.
“From Jamestown to Utah in 40 years? I didn’t think so,” Martin said.
Martin thought the Kennedy Center flag displayed an error.
But, like many of the District’s unheralded double-checkers, he had to be sure. Eventually, he went back and took a photo of the flag and zoomed in, to make sure it wasn’t a lighting trick that made the date wrong.
Nope. He was right.
Turns out it was a manufacturing flub, a typo — an 8 that became a 6 to folks in a factory far from Salt Lake City — and the state has since quietly lowered many other flags from that same, bad batch.
Ryan emailed the folks at the Kennedy Center.
And they were a little horrified.
“Now I look up and wonder how many others could be wrong,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter, looking for the flag of her home state, California.
All good. The California bear’s there.
“Maybe that’s a project for the next interns — they research all the flags and make sure they’re right,” Rutter said. “And then they’ll move on to the Hall of Nations.”
Rutter and the rest of the Kennedy Center staff told Martin that they’d change it, of course.
But, being the Kennedy Center, they did it with a bit of fanfare.
It is a center for the arts, after all.
And what art is becoming more celebrated and coveted than the art of getting it right?
Like twangy, fading folk music played in forgotten lands, the art of accuracy has been practiced quietly for years in the folds of Washington, tucked away in cubicles, desks and basement offices. Taken for granted. Swatted away.
Even the New York Times is jettisoning some of its most persnickety perfectionists, “streamlining” the copy-editing process.
And who ever won a local or national award for catching mistakes?
But your day has finally come, Fact-Checkers.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has officially acknowledged the art in your passion for accuracy.
Martin reminded the Kennedy Center folks that Utah celebrates Pioneer Day on July 24. It is the 170th anniversary of the day that Brigham Young stopped the ragged caravan of settlers, exhausted and worn after a thousand-mile exodus, and looked out over the Great Basin and is thought to have said, “This is the place.” Or, “This is the right spot.” Or, “This is the Spot that I [h]av[e] anticipated.” (Fact-checkers would argue that no one knows the exact words. I see y’all. I know you’re out there.)
“So, wouldn’t it be great to do it on July 24?” Martin asked the Kennedy Center staff.
So they did. With cameras. short speeches and onlookers. A small crowd watched as Kennedy Center building crew worker Joshua Newsome rode the cherry picker — slowly, slowly — into the air.
“We haven’t had a crowd like this since we put up the Cuban flag,” said his co-worker, Fred Gordon.
And the detail-oriented crowd below coached Newsome on how to raise the new flag.
“Pull it out a little more.”
“Stretch the wrinkles out!”
“Make sure it’s facing the right way!”
He descended to the mechanical hum of the crane like the Messiah of the Auto Corrected, and the crowd cheered when Newsome laid the incorrect flag to rest in Martin’s hands.
“We’re proud of him,” said his wife, Tricia. And his three kids helped him fold the flag with crisp, perfect creases.
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