Factual time bombs

There’s an old saying in journalism: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” In other words, don’t believe anything you hear until you go to a second source and check your facts before publication.

I’ve covered the hazards of giving short shrift to fact-checking in an earlier post. My purpose here is to tell a story to show how important that step is in the book process.

In 1998, I was doing research for my first book, Counting What Counts, which I co-authored with Marc Epstein, an expert in corporate accountability, formerly at Harvard and now at Rice University. As a journalist, one of the things I brought to the co-authorship was first-hand reporting on companies managed by leading executives.

In writing a chapter on how CEOs could better run their boards, I pursued Dennis Kozlowski, the CEO of Tyco International, headquartered not far from where I live in New Hampshire. I picked Kozlowski as a candidate for a governance role model after The Wall Street Journal cited him for his state-of-the-art governance at Tyco.

It was a short drive for me to Kozlowski’s office, and I arranged to interview him in person. In front of a glowing fireplace—real logs!—Kozlowski talked with pride about governance. He said he valued an active board, and he had in place all the leading governance structures of the time—a “lead director,” annual voting for board members, rotating committee chairs, and so on.

To check Kozlowski’s story, I interviewed Kozlowski’s lead director, an independent member of the board. This director echoed everything Kozlowski said. He was proud to cite the same leading-edge practices. I was pleased. Everything about Tyco seemed to add up.

But of course, a couple of years later, Kozlowski was accused of looting the company for $135 million. True, he had built Tyco into a giant conglomerate, delighting shareholders with a tenfold increase in the stock price. But he apparently helped himself to more wealth than he was due. He made himself the poster child of the greedy CEO.

Of his many indiscretions, two became legendary: He had the company pay half the $2.1 million bill for an extravagant party for his wife in Sardinia. Second, the company paid for a decadent $27 million apartment in New York that featured a $6,000 gold-and-burgundy shower curtain.

No matter that Kozlowski had been cited by reliable sources as a leader. No matter that I interviewed him to find he had in place leading-edge governance structures. No matter that an independent director confirmed the story. My reporting missed that Kozlowski was slipping into inexcusable profligacy. The revelations of Kozlowski’s greed were chastening.

So the lesson is that research is never perfect, especially if you’re an outsider. Even though Kozlowski checked all the boxes of good governance, and even though public documents (i.e., the proxy) provided a record of checks and balances few other companies had, the Tyco CEO was running amok. In the end, he was using the corporation as a personal bank account.

The difficulty of getting a story that holds up when all the dirty laundry is exposed is legendary in journalism. That’s why you can’t be too careful when gathering content for your book. Checking directly with primary sources, cross-checking with independent sources, fact checking afterwards to correct errors—these all help minimize the chance of leaving a fictional time bomb in your nonfiction book.

Ultimately the lesson is simple, even if not foolproof: If your mother tells you to go back and triple check your sources, do what she says..

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 5th, 2015 at 12:25 pm and is filed under Craft, Editing, Process, Research. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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