The Filak Furlough Tour took a stop at Morgan State University, where we covered a couple of really great topics in two classes. Milton Kent, the professor there, was extremely nice to me after I screwed up the name of his student newspaper in a post I wrote a while back, so I wanted to make it up to him and his crew as best I could.
In one class, we talked about some reporting and writing stuff while in the other, we talked about editing, fact checking and such. It was such a great time that I forgot to grab a screen shot photo for this.
Oh, well. You’ll have to take my word that I actually wore a different shirt.
MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY – Baltimore, Maryland
THE TOPIC: We went with a lot of Q and A in the first class, and we’ve kind of touched on a lot of that already, so we’re going with the second class a bit more, with the idea of how to edit and what to do.
THE BASICS: There are a couple key things that really help me when I need to edit something. The first one is particularly helpful when I am trying to edit something I wrote.
Write, get the heck away from it, come back, put on my “editor’s hat” and then go to work.
Editing right after you write something doesn’t tend to work that well in a lot of cases, particularly because you figure if you wrote it, you probably figured it was right in the first place. It’s also hard to edit right after you wrote it, at least it is for me, because my mind kind of “fills in” stuff that’s not there because I knew what I meant when I wrote it. That makes it harder to do a true word-by-word edit.
Getting away from the piece for a while can help you mentally reboot and come back at it with a fresh set of eyes. I also like to pretend a bit that this came from someone else, so I can be like, “OK, what the fresh hell is this?” Like most things when you’re working with writing and editing, you find little ways to make things work for you. Once you find them, stick with them.
A couple other tips I liked to use:
ASSUME EVERYTHING IS WRONG: One of the easiest ways to get something wrong is to assume everything is right and then only check on things that appear wrong. It’s a pretty standard thing editors who are strapped for time do. Editors who work with high-end pros a lot also tend to go this route, because you expect stuff to be right if the person is a high-end pro.
Me? I work with a lot of students and I’ve read a lot of things that, while outlandish, tend to be true. I’ve also read stuff that seemed to be logical, only to find the kids made it up. This kind of weird confluence of experiences has put me in t he position where I just assume everything is wrong and I have to go about proving it to be accurate.
For example, if a source said, “I got arrested in New York in 2004 for a string of burglaries and got sent to Smithton State Prison for 10 years. While I was there, more than 20 people got killed in prisoner on prisoner violence.” I’ve got a lot to look at:
- Can I prove the guy got arrested and for what charges?
- Can I prove the time and place of the arrest and conviction?
- Can I prove he went where he said he went and for that amount of time?
- Can I prove people got killed there and if so, can I prove the number of deaths?
The same thing is true of simple things like name spellings, ages, job titles and more. Assume it’s wrong and prove it right.
SINS OF OMISSION ARE VENIAL, SINS OF COMMISSION CAN BE MORTAL: Going along with what we talked about above, if I can’t prove something is right, I’m probably not going to use it. This isn’t always possible. I love going back to this argument in Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” where the main character (a fact-checker at a magazine) has a discussion with a notoriously sloppy writer:
“Where did you get this about the French government owning a controlling interest in Paramount Pictures?” you say.
“Don’t they? Well, shit. Run a line through that.”
“Your next three paragraphs depend on it.”
“Damn. Who told me that?”
In many cases, however, it’s easy enough to either check the fact and prove it so you can keep it in or check the fact and disprove it so you can cut it. If you can’t do either, it’s better to leave the thing out than to be wrong.
In writing, we talk about sins of omission and how they can undercut a piece. That’s true, but those sins, to borrow from my Catholic upbringing, are venial. You can be forgiven for not being as complete as you need to be. If you screw up because you guess wrong, those sins are mortal and you can pretty much kill a piece (or even your career).
WHEN YOU SCREW UP, ADMIT IT: Mistakes will happen. I think I make about 353,532 a day, and that’s when I’m only awake for 12 hours. The ones you put into the public sphere, however, can really damage your reputation among your peers and your audience.
The one thing I did when I talked to Milton Kent’s class was to apologize for screwing up the name of the school’s publication. I’d already fixed it on the blog weeks earlier and I made an email apology to Milton, but I wanted to let the kids know I was sorry as well. The goal was simple: Be a decent example.
It’s hard to feel OK about screwing up and it’s even harder to fess up when you make a mistake, but people tend to trust you more when you are honest and open about errors. Like most hockey goalies, even the best editors occasionally let one slip past them. There’s no shame in raising one’s hand and saying, “That’s on me.”
BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you think of the situation with Hasan Minhaj and The New Yorker’s fact check of his comedy? He told some broader truths and after the piece questioned his accuracy, he did a video where he “brought the receipts” for what he said in his act. What’s your take on all this?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME (plus an update): (When the student asked me this, I’d read the New Yorker piece, seen some response pieces and heard the Bill Maher bit on this concept of “emotional truth.” I had not actually seen Minhaj’s response video, which I did explain to the class. After watching it, I might have changed a couple things (which I’ll touch on after the main answer), but overall, I think the answer itself stands up.)
It felt kind of strange to me that a writer at The New Yorker would spend this kind of reporting capital on fact-checking a comedic routine. There did seem to be some problems with what he said in his comedy and the ramifications of those statements for other people.
(In one part of his comedy that was examined by the writer, Minhaj mentions that he tried to take a white girl to the prom, only to be turned away at her doorstep because her family didn’t want her in prom pictures with a “brown boy.” According to the story the girl (now woman) and her family caught a lot of online harassment for this, even though it didn’t happen in that way, and she ended up marrying another “brown boy” later in life. )
When you make up stuff and it negatively impacts real people, that’s not good, even if you’re doing it for comedic effect. Minhaj is operating in a world of comedy that’s different from the past days, as comedy and fact have become blurred. That means there is a greater risk when you bend the truth or play to broader issues with made-up examples.
Comics have always made up some parts of their act. The late Rodney Dangerfield notoriously made jokes about his wife cheating on him. (“When I come home, the parrot says, ‘Quick! Out the window!'” would be one of those.) While “Fat Albert” in Bill Cosby’s routine was based on a real person, there’s no real proof of people like “Mushmouth” or “Dumb Donald” existing. Richard Pryor, while turning significantly terrible aspects of his life into true comedy, did add elements to his comedy that didn’t exist or were untruthful.
(I’m not linking to any of Pryor’s stuff here, as I don’t want my editors at SAGE to have a heart attack. Speaking of which, one of Pryor’s go-to bits was about how his father died, which is both truth and fiction. If you look it up on YouTube, listen with headphones and don’t say I didn’t warn you…)
That said, those tweaks didn’t create significant negative impact for real people. If people had spray painted “WHORE!” on Dangerfield’s wife’s car or she got kicked out of her ladies at church because of his jokes, yeah, that’s something he’d need to answer for. If something terrible happened to “Fat Albert” because of Cosby’s comedy or significant harm happened because of Pryor’s tweaks to the truth, the same thing applies.
Here were two things that stuck out with me about the Minhaj situation:
First, I’m not doubting that he experienced negative things like the ones he mentioned in his comedy specials. The racism he discusses has been well documented in far too many facets of life for this to be viewed as just lies for the sake of a laugh. (Just like Pryor’s routine about being pulled over by the cops because someone “looked just like you” probably didn’t happen the way he said it in his routine, I have no doubt he and others experienced that kind of thing and that it was terrible.)
Using humor to draw attention to social inequality and similar issues has merits. I think Minhaj just “punched up” a few of his real examples to make the comedy better while trying to make a bigger point. (I often joke about 12 years of Catholic school and getting battered about by nuns. We did experience some significant smacking around and some emotional trauma from more than a few people, but it wasn’t all nuns and it wasn’t all the time.) Comedy creates awareness in some significant ways.
Second, I think that doing a deep dive on Minhaj just felt a little shady. There are hundreds of comics out there talking about “real things” that weren’t 100 percent verified. For the sake of the exercise, go through this Jeff Foxworthy routine about his “Cousin Sherry’s Wedding.”
I have no idea of Foxworthy has a cousin named Sherry. If he does, I have no idea if she actually had a “hurry up wedding” in his Uncle Wayne’s backyard. I also don’t know if she was 8 months pregnant when she got married or, as his mother supposedly said, “That’s the same dress her mother got married in.” I found it funny, regardless.
But we could take apart that routine or a dozen others about his family (“The Clampetts go to Maui” is a classic for this kind of analysis) in the same way The New Yorker went after Minhaj if we wanted. Dare I say, we probably wouldn’t, which probably points toward the racial inequity Minhaj was trying to raise more than anything else.
POST SCRIPT: After I got done with the class, I went to find the video the student referenced that I hadn’t seen. Minhaj does a 21-minute video where he picks apart the article and explains himself. He does apologize if he led anyone astray with his comedy, which I think is fair. I also think he’s probably more accurate than the New Yorker gave him credit for being. He “brought the receipts” in the form of emails, texts and other supporting evidence.
In most cases, he’s more right than wrong and where he did bend the truth, he made some solid explanations for why he did so. He also pointed to some of the spots where the article’s writer made choices that put a decided slant on how he was coming across. He’s not “emotional truthing” this thing to death, making claims that are untrue but feel like they should be. He realized some of the stuff he said could be a bit further out than maybe he intended initially, but he probably never figured someone would fact check him within an inch of his life.
If nothing else for me, this demonstrated the key principle I always try to push to my students: Before you make a decision, get all the facts you can.