Book Publishing's Dirty Secret: Fact-Checking Is Basically Non-Existent

How Dylan Davies Could Publish A Benghazi Fantasy

While 60 Minutes is conducting some kind of “journalistic review” of its discredited story about the Benghazi attack, publishers of a related book that has been removed from stores have been largely mum about how they published an apparent fabrication.

Threshold Books published The Embassy House by “Sgt. Morgan Jones” and then retracted the book after it became clear that the author -- a British former security contractor whose real name is Dylan Davies -- had apparently lied about being at the scene of the September 2012 assault.

Some critics have questioned how Threshold could have published such a story in the first place without verifying it. But according to publishing veterans, there are few safeguards to prevent such a failure in an industry that provides only minimal review and fact-checking. Without in-house fact-checkers at most publishing houses, authors themselves typically bear the sole responsibility for the accuracy of their work.

“As a general course of business, publishers do not conduct a thorough fact-check on most of their books,” said Sloan Harris, a literary agent at ICM Talent who represents New Yorker veterans Jane Mayer and Ken Auletta. “A number of our prominent authors will, in fact, employ an outside fact-checker at their own expense.”

But such fact-checking arrangements are far from mandatory or routine.

Harris explained, “publishers are already under huge market pressures and seem to be overworked every year, adding another function to their obligation is not a likely outcome at this point.”

Threshold, a conservative imprint of the CBS publishing division Simon & Schuster, announced last week that the Davies book would no longer be for sale following the revelation that the author had told a dramatically different story to the FBI and his employer than he provided in the book. Davies' co-author Damien Lewis reportedly issued a statement saying:

If there are inconsistencies in the events as told in The Embassy House and Mr. Davies's previous renderings of the story, Mr. Davies needs to answer those inconsistencies. Those who were injured on the night of Benghazi 9/11 deserve to know the truth, as do the families of those who lost their lives.

But so far, that truth has yet to be provided, and Threshold does not seem in a hurry to explain it. The publisher has not responded to requests for comment or an explanation about how it vetted Davies, if the book was fact-checked, or what is being done to investigate how a book largely based on lies of its author could be approved.

Editors and agents who spoke with Media Matters agree that non-fiction book authors have the leeway to write what they wish without editors seeking to verify their claims. In the case of authors like Davies, who apparently choose to fabricate their stories, the lack of accountability can be devastating to publishers, journalists, and readers.

“It's true that it is up to the author a lot of the time,” said Barry Harbaugh, a veteran editor at Harper Collins. Citing a biography of the cyclist Lance Armstrong he is editing, Harbaugh noted, “We made sure the author hired a fact-checker.”

A former magazine fact-checker, Harbaugh recalled his surprise when he first arrived at the publishing house and discovered “there is not a full-time fact-checker here in the way that there is at most big magazines.”

And when a co-author or ghost writer is used, as in the case of Davies and Lewis, Harbaugh said it is their responsibility to “take the story and get a hold of every clip they can and get an idea of what is the truth.”

The literary agent Harris echoed that view: “There's an entire spectrum of oversight that you can create in a book collaboration. At one end of the spectrum is the ghost writer who is going to interview and transcribe the source. The opposite end is when you have a journalist with serious reporting and journalistic chops and will ask hard questions and do reporting beyond the subject.”

Robert Weil, a 35-year editor at W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., said staffing full-time fact-checkers is just not possible for publishers.

“It's really on a book-by-book basis, you don't have an entire staff to fact-check a book,” he said. “We are all fallible. There are much bigger staffs at certain magazines to do huge amounts of fact-checking, which book publishers have not had. Often you will ask an author to hire someone to do that.”

Veteran authors tell Media Matters that they know accuracy is their responsibility and that they won't have such support from their publisher.

“I do think they operate from an assumption of truth,” Daniel Paisner, who has written or collaborated on more than 40 non-fiction books for Rodale, said about publishers. 

“There's a different standard in place than there is in journalism. It is not the same as journalism. I do not see a long-standing effort to fact-check in the books I do, it is on the author. I don't think they have the infrastructure for this. They do send these out for legal reads, but they do not have what you would imagine to be a fact-checking department, they are not built that way.”

Greg Mitchell, media columnist for The Nation and author of more than a dozen non-fiction books, pointed out that most books are reviewed by attorneys for specific legal concerns, but don't receive a full factual accounting.

“If anything, you get a legal read,” said Mitchell, also a former Editor & Publisher editor. “You wouldn't have anyone who really would probe in any way things like the Dylan Davies thing. I would think that in the case of Dylan Davies, it was very sensitive and have a lot of ramifications, it's basically his word.”

With such a lack of accountability, especially for first-time authors and those working with ghost writers, the onus is on news outlets like 60 Minutes to vet a source who has written a book and is using the broadcast or news story to promote it, media veterans said.

"There is an unholy alliance between book publishers eager to promote sales and TV news magazines and talk shows hungry for interesting guests," said Marvin Kalb, former host of Meet the Press and a fellow at The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Kalb pointed out that when news outlets and publishers are part of the same corporate family it can create a pressure for cross-promotion, as was the case with Davies' tale. "60 Minutes broadcast the Benghazi piece when it did because it coincided with the book's publication," he said via email. “This is an unhealthy collaboration, temptations too often pushing news considerations aside.”

Andy Alexander, former ombudsman for The Washington Post and past D.C. bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, also urged caution to news outlets utilizing book authors as sources.

“I don't think it's realistic for news organizations to fully vet every book they report on,” he said via email. “But journalists should always be especially skeptical of serious assertions, regardless of the source.” He added that the fact that The Embassy House “was being published by a CBS subsidiary provided yet another reason for 60 Minutes to be especially skeptical. There was a strong likelihood that this self-interest - which was not acknowledged in the initial broadcast report - would cause critics to accuse 60 Minutes of pumping a book simply to increase revenues for the parent company.”