Knowing the facts is key to a successful reopening
On Monday, my family of three headed out for our evening walk in Central Park. Before we left the apartment, as always, we put on our masks. Once we’d cleared the lobby and crossed the street into open space, my husband, Evan, and our 10-year-old daughter took off their masks, and I, for no particular reason, left mine on.
As we headed down the east side, an old man stopped in front of Evan and barked, “Where’s your mask?”
Evan kept his cool as he gestured to the homemade face-covering he’d lowered just beneath his chin and answered, “Right here.”
The old man barked again, “Where’s your daughter’s?”
Again, totally cool, Evan said, “Right there,” and pointed to the blue bandana my daughter had slid onto her wrist.
In such situations, I’m not nearly as cool as Evan. I looked at the old man and challenged, “Why don’t you get your facts straight before you start yelling at people?”
He turned and walked off, but I wasn’t done and proceeded to let him know that the executive order issued by Governor Cuomo said that all people in New York would be required to wear masks or cloth coverings in situations where they cannot maintain social distancing.
We were doing just fine with distancing until that grouch stopped to school us with bad information. I suppose I’d been primed to go off on him because when Evan had returned from taking our daughter out to run around the day before (apart from others, masks handy!), he reported upon his return that a woman of a certain age had ordered him to put on his mask, old-bag-splaining that it was not just for his own protection but everyone else’s. To which her husband added, “And you should teach your daughter to do the right thing.”
Look, I have no problem with a fellow New Yorker pointing out a rule violation. If I’m absent-mindedly texting in a doorway or taking too long at the ATM, by all means let me know. If you’re a senior citizen and being outside these days makes you nervous and you’d be more comfortable if we put on our masks, that’s completely understandable. Just ask. But please do not correct me incorrectly.
My affection for facts goes back to my first job out of college, which was as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. While we did go out on assignment and cover events, the majority of our time was spent in the office fact-checking the stories that would run in the magazine. Being a fact-checker is often stressful and always thankless. It’s also some of the best training a young journalist can get.
Every week, I’d be assigned one story to check, and every week I’d talk to at least one person who had a problem with that story. I dealt with belligerent agents, nasty P.R. people, and executives who screamed in my ear. They’d push back, argue, threaten to sue. And that was fine. They didn’t have to like what we were saying, but if we had it nailed down we were saying it.
There were also some difficult conversations with writers, especially those who tended to embellish a little, or a lot. I worked with one writer who’d routinely include lines like, “N.W.A. blared over the speakers while the players took turns knocking back shots of Cuervo and snorting lines of Colombian cocaine off a stripper’s Agent Provocateur-clad derriere.” (I made that one up, but it gives you the idea.)
Not only did I have to run all of that down on deadline, but when, many embarrassing phone calls later, it turned out to be a steaming pile of malarkey, I had the distinct pleasure of informing Mr. Rock Star Sports Writer it was getting cut.
Fact-checking requires patience and careful attention to detail. A lot of it is grunt-work, verifying names, dates, stats. There’s also a human element, knowing how to talk to people from whom you need a lot of information fast. That means you have to read them fast and adjust your approach to their vibe. Are they cooperative or defensive? Chatty or curt? You also have to know how to ease your way into sensitive subjects.
In my time as a fact-checker at SI, I talked to everyone from Derek Jeter’s parents to a drunken Marge Schott. I was up at all hours making calls to a boxing gym in Soweto and almost had a nervous breakdown when I was handed a 5,000-word piece on a professional golfer that was one giant lawsuit waiting to happen.
But the hardest phone call I ever had to make was to the mother of an NBA player who’d lost both her daughters to AIDS. I had to ask about transfusions and dirty needles, stabbings, beatings, blood. That conversation stays with me to this day — not because of the heart-wrenching questions I had to pose, but because of the courage and grace with which they were answered.
The enemy of truth is not lies. It’s indifference. Having someone say “trust me” and you do, blindly, no questions asked. It’s rigidity. A curmudgeon in the park who insists you’re not obeying the rules when he hasn’t even bothered to find out what they are and isn’t planning to.
Telling the truth can be difficult, especially when it reveals our weaknesses and mistakes, failings and flaws. It’s hard for kids who get busted sneaking candy and for the guy in the White House who suggested we try mainlining Lysol. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. The more the merrier. But when facts are up for debate, the world goes wobbly. We have no center, no true north.
As summer approaches and we inch toward reopening, we all need to be clear on what’s allowed and what’s not. Walking around flinging misapprehensions will only lead to more tension and anger, more people in other people’s faces and that’s exactly what we don’t want.
Whether we’re locked down in a big city or hunkered down on top of a mountain, it’s everyone’s responsibility to be informed. That’s what will breed calm and, more important, promote progress. Don’t get mad. Get educated. The sources are out there. All you have to do is care enough find them.
And that’s a fact.