Readings — From the February 2012 issue
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Copyright (c) 2012 by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.
From The Lifespan of a Fact, by writer John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, published in February 2012 by W. W. Norton. In 2005, as an intern at The Believer, Fingal began fact-checking D’Agata’s article on the 2002 suicide of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley. The book is based on emails exchanged by D’Agata and Fingal. The fact-checked article appeared in The Believer in 2010.
JIM FINGAL: Hi, John. I’m the intern who’s been assigned to fact-check your article. I was hoping you could clarify how you determined that there are thirty-four strip clubs in the city while the source you’re using says thirty-one.
JOHN D’AGATA: Hi, Jim. I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the “article,” as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful. I’m not sure it’s going to be worth your time to fact-check this.
FINGAL: I hear you. But I think it’s just policy to fact-check all the nonfiction pieces the magazine publishes. So could you help me out with that number?
D’AGATA: All right. Well, from what I can remember, I got that number by counting up the number of strip clubs that were listed in the local yellow pages. However, since that issue of the phone book was long gone by the time I started writing this, I found that porn article that I gave the magazine so that they could check up on my estimate.
FINGAL: I guess that’s where the discrepancy is, because the number that’s mentioned in the article is different from the number you’re using in your piece.
D’AGATA: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of “thirty-four” works better in that sentence than the rhythm of “thirty-one,” so I changed it.
FINGAL: Hey, John . . . again =). I was wondering if you could weigh in on this tic-tac-toe game with the chicken. It looks like it happened after Levi Presley died. Also, the woman who won it wasn’t really from Mississippi. I think she was a local resident. Does this matter?
D’AGATA: I realize that, but I need her to be from a place other than Las Vegas in order to underscore the transient nature of the city—that nearly everyone in Vegas is from someplace else. And since she did in fact originally come from Mississippi, I think the claim is fine as it is.
FINGAL: What about that fact that this didn’t occur on the day Presley died? It’s not accurate to say that it did.
D’AGATA: It was part of the atmosphere of that particular summer.
FINGAL: Then isn’t that how it should be framed?
D’AGATA: No, because being more precise would be less dramatic. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart, or a few months apart. What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.” Nobody is going to read this, in other words, in order to get a survey of the demographics of Las Vegas or what’s scheduled on the community calendar. Readers can get that kind of information elsewhere.
FINGAL: There’s no mention of this accident in the archives of either the Las Vegas Review-Journal or the Las Vegas Sun, the two major papers in the city. John, do you have a source for this?
D’AGATA: I heard about this from a woman I interviewed at the Aztec Inn, which is across the street from the Stratosphere.
FINGAL: Can you send me a copy of your notes from this interview?
D’AGATA: I didn’t keep notes from the interview. I just relied on my memory of what she told me. Besides, this wasn’t a formal interview. I was just wandering around the Stratosphere trying to gather information.
FINGAL: To be honest, I suspect your casual interviewing strategy is going to be a problem.
D’AGATA: Well it might be a problem, but with all due respect, it’s your problem, Jim, not mine. I’m not a reporter, and I have no interest in pretending to be a reporter or in producing journalism. Also, even if this had been a formal interview, I still wouldn’t have taken extensive notes, because I tend to be casual whenever I’m interviewing people so that they feel more comfortable with me. The minute you take out a tape recorder or a notebook during an interview people get self-conscious and start “performing” for you, watching what they say and how they say it.
FINGAL: Well, OK . . . I guess . . . but this still seems to violate about ten different rules of journalistic integrity.
D’AGATA: I’m not sure that matters, Jim. This is an essay, so journalistic rules don’t belong here.
FINGAL: “. . . his answers to the questions on the last pop quiz he took in school . . .” These questions are taken from an “Art Pretest” rather than a “pop quiz.” And the test is dated August 25, 1999, and Levi’s death was on July 12, 2002, so even if this were a “pop quiz,” it’s very unlikely that it was “the last pop quiz he took in school,” unless he was one lucky kid.
D’AGATA: OK, you’re probably right that this wasn’t his “last” quiz. But it’s more dramatic to say that it was, and I don’t think it’s harming anyone to do that. It’s not like there’s a quiz out there that’ll get jealous if we claim that this was Levi’s last quiz. Really, Jim, respectfully, you’re worrying about very stupid shit. (By the way, also very stupid would be calling this quiz a “pretest,” because I kind of suspect that half the readers out there wouldn’t even know what the fuck that was.)
FINGAL: Unfortunately I don’t get to decide which facts are stupid; I have to check all of them.
FINGAL: Can’t find any reference to this Zurich ordinance anywhere. Source?
D’AGATA: I’m sure I could find it if nailing down this tiny little fact is that important.
FINGAL: “Important” is relative at this point. But I’d like to have it for the sake of thoroughness.
D’AGATA: OK, will hunt around.
FINGAL: Awesome, thank you.
D’AGATA: Sorry, can’t find it.
FINGAL: “There was, for a long time, when construction on it began, the rumor of an anomaly that locals called a ‘kink,’ a bend in one of the tower’s three 800-foot-high legs.” I can’t find evidence of this. John?
D’AGATA: The “rumor” about the Stratosphere kink is entirely anecdotal, which is why it’s called a “rumor.” I took my first trip to Las Vegas in the summer of 1994. On a bus tour I took from Las Vegas to Hoover Dam, we sat briefly in traffic at the foot of the tower, and the bus driver—who doubled as our tour guide—told us that one of the three legs on the tower’s tripod was crooked and that because the sight of it so unnerved local residents (even though it was supposedly safe), the building’s contractor filled in the leg’s crooked angle with Styrofoam.
FINGAL: Do you have any documentation of that, like notes from your trip?
D’AGATA: You’re asking for evidence of a rumor?
FINGAL: If you’re saying that there was a rumor, I have to find out whether there was in fact a rumor, even if I ignore the truth value of the rumor. Do you remember the name of the company that ran the tour?
D’AGATA: Are you serious? No, I don’t remember the name of a tour company from more than fifteen years ago. Sorry, readers are going to have to feel factually unfulfilled here.
FINGAL: Then what about the notes you took during that trip?
D’AGATA: In 1994 I was a sophomore in college, studying Latin and Greek—not writing—and on vacation with my grandparents. We were going to Hoover Dam on a thousand-hour bus trip through the desert without any air-conditioning. No notes were being taken, Jim.