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Daniel Radcliffe and the Art of the Fact-Check

Fact: the actor Daniel Radcliffe is currently starring in the Broadway show “The Lifespan of a Fact,” as a magazine fact checker with an aviation inspector’s zeal for accuracy. The play is drawn from a real-life skirmish: in 2005, Jim Fingal, an intern at The Believer, was tasked with fact-checking an essay by John D’Agata (played by Bobby Cannavale), about a teen suicide in Las Vegas. D’Agata had more of a watercolorist’s approach to the truth. When Fingal tried to correct his claim that Las Vegas had thirty-four licensed strip clubs—a source indicated that it was thirty-one—D’Agata said that he liked the “rhythm” of thirty-four. Their epistolary tussle was expanded into a book in 2012.

Not long ago, Radcliffe arrived at the offices of this magazine, wearing a maroon cap and a green jacket and clutching a latte. He had come to try his own hand at fact-checking, with the help of The New Yorker’s fact-checking department. Radcliffe had a few things to verify himself. Passing a wall displaying recent New Yorker covers, he said, “That makes me feel a lot better about our play. We’ve talked about whether an editor would have loads of covers in their office. I’m going to go back and say, ‘Yes.’ ”

He reported to the office of Peter Canby, the magazine’s head of fact-checking. “One of the flaws—maybe it isn’t a flaw—that my character has in the play is that he has no ability to differentiate between the things that matter and the things that don’t,” Radcliffe said. Canby, who had seen a preview, assured him that his character was spot-on, while allowing, “It’s not really a science. It’s more of an art.”

Then he put Radcliffe to work. They hunched over a soon-to-run review of Oxomoco, a Mexican restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The first step, Canby explained, was to underline all checkable facts. “Let’s crack on,” Radcliffe said, scanning the line “The dip itself was excellent, laced with chilies in adobo and cilantro and dressed up with cotija cheese and slightly smoky, lightly charred cherry tomatoes.” He underlined everything except “was excellent.”

The writer (herself a former checker) had noted the restaurant’s “Venice Beach aesthetic”: fact or opinion? Canby designated it a “workable possible impression,” but worth checking. Radcliffe had an eleven-o’clock phone call scheduled with the chef, Justin Bazdarich, and Canby gave him something akin to an acting lesson: “You have to project confidence, so the person doesn’t start quarrelling with everything that you ask.”

“I’m more nervous about this than I am about going onstage tonight,” Radcliffe said.

Canby had to go; he deputized a checker named Parker Henry to supervise Radcliffe. On her computer, they checked a few easy facts from the restaurant’s Web site, which indicated that, yes, the brunch menu includes a “bowls” section. Then they ducked into a windowless fact-checking library and dialled Bazdarich.

“Hi, Justin. I’m Dan, at The New Yorker,” Radcliffe began, twiddling a red pencil. “Some of these questions are going to feel very boring and prosaic to you,” he warned. “So bear with me. First off, your surname: is that spelled B-A-Z-D-A-R-I-C-H?” (It is.) “Does the restaurant serve guacamole?” (Yes.) “In the dip itself, would it be right to say there are chilies in adobo and cilantro?” (No adobo, but yes to the cilantro.) “Is there a drink you serve there, a Paloma?” (Yes.) “And that’s pale, pink, and frothy, I believe?” (Correct.) “Is brunch at your place—which, by the way, sounds fantastic—served seven days a week?” (Yes.) “That’s great news,” Radcliffe said, “for the accuracy of this, and for me.”

He took a breath. “Moving along: you also serve a beef-tartare tostada? (Correct.) “And that has some fried grasshopper on it?” (Actually, the insect is toasted over a wood fire, Bazdarich said. Radcliffe, his pencil trembling, scribbled “toasted.”) “And is that a whole grasshopper you get with each one, or is it sort of segments?” (Whole, but sometimes they break apart.) “Would it be correct to say that meat is a major theme?” Bazdarich seemed skeptical. Radcliffe, panicking, added, “Don’t worry, it is also made mention of that vegetarians or pescatarians can be very, very happy at your restaurants.”

He got to the dreaded “Venice Beach” line. “Would it be correct to say that you’ve got a very light, sort of California feel inside?” he asked. Bazdarich said that he considered it more Mexican than Californian. “Sorry, yes,” Radcliffe said, laughing nervously. “I’m an English person who has not been to Mexico, so that was my first frame of reference.”

Radcliffe hung up and exhaled. “I just fact-checked a fucking article!” he said. “Nothing I do today will be harder than that.” A few days later, a New Yorker fact checker called Radcliffe to verify the above account. “Very meta,” he said. Everything checked out, except that he had been drinking a cappuccino, not a latte, and he has, in point of fact, been to Mexico.

See more to this article via Michael’s Tweet of Dan’s Fact Checking @MJSchulman




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