The Search for the Truth: A Conversation with Jonathan Bernstein
For the last 10 years, Jonathan Bernstein has been verifying facts for Rolling Stone. We spoke for an hour about his role at the famed magazine and his forthcoming book about Justin Townes Earle.
How many number one singles did The Beatles have? First, you’d have to decide which chart you’re talking about. Maybe you’d settle on the Billboard Hot 100. But the complexities of this simple question don’t end there. “Come Together” and “Something” got to number one as a double A sided single. Should you count that as one or two number ones?
As a fact-checker at Rolling Stone, Jonathan Bernstein picks apart questions like this everyday. We spoke for an hour about how you suss out the truth in a story, why he fell in love with country music, and his forthcoming book about Justin Townes Earle, the influential singer-songwriter that died tragically in 2020.
A Conversation with Jonathan Bernstein
In a 2021 interview, you said that your first job out of college was running social media for southwestern locations of the national body-waxing chain European Wax Center. How did you go from that to Rolling Stone?
I'm impressed you found that interview. That was my first job out of college. I was pretty depressed doing that. In college, I had a summer internship at Rolling Stone, which was my dream and was a huge deal. The following summer, I interned at this much smaller music magazine. Basically, while I was doing this European Wax Center job after college, I was freelancing for publications like American Songwriter and Oxford American. I was just doing everything that I could to practice writing.
And then I got very lucky. I knew someone who had been freelance fact-checking at Rolling Stone. At the time, Rolling Stone had a bunch of freelance fact-checkers that it brought in every other week to help close issues. I first begged them to let me start fact-checking, but they sent me down the hallway to Us Weekly, which Rolling Stone owned at the time. So, I started fact-checking for Us for a few months, and then eventually, they let me start on a very low level, at Rolling Stone in the fall of 2013. So, that's the long answer. The short answer is just a bunch of luck, knowing the right people, and being in the right place at the right time.
You recently tweeted, “wild to say that i started checking facts at rolling stone ten years ago today. if i've learned anything, it's that the L.A. rap group is styled "N.W.A" (no period after the "A"!)”. This tweet gets at the attention to detail you have to have as a research editor or fact-checker. But I think many people would ask why it matters whether you put a period after the “A” in “N.W.A” or not. So, I pose the question to you. Why does it matter to get those nitty, gritty facts correct?
I was being a little bit cheeky in that tweet because the reality of the bulk of what a fact-checker does is hard to explain, but you are essentially assessing sourcing and checking quotes, dates, facts, and spelling. It's making sure that the “Beacon Theatre” is spelled “Theatre” and not “Theater” because that's the way the Beacon Theatre spells it. In the highest stakes scenario, you're basically re-reporting an entire story.
It’s important to get that stuff correct for consistency. You want to foster a readership as a publication. A way to engender trust in a publication from a reader is if they're opening the magazine or going to the website every day, they're not seeing their favorite band name spelled different ways.
I just got into a discussion this week about whether there are periods in the “DMC” part of Run-DMC. Those things matter to the people who are making the magazine because it shows you're putting out an incredibly high-quality product. If I'm reading a book or an article in a reputable publication, and I see a little typo or a name spelled incorrectly, it makes me question whether the highest level of care has been applied to the entire story.
Like if you're not paying attention to the little things, you're also probably not paying attention to the big things.
To get a taste of what it’s like to do your job, I want to focus on a story that you wrote and have you walk us through how things were verified. I know you don’t fact-check your own stories, but I thought it would be more interesting with something you wrote. This is a story from Rolling Stone in 2018 called “Inside the Life of Brenda Lee, the Pop Heroine Next Door”. I’m going to read you a few passages and let you walk us through how someone would go about making sure these passages were correct.
Here’s the first passage: “Lee rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash or Muddy Waters, but in her prime, she was as popular as any of them. In the Sixties, she earned more Hot 100 singles in the United States – 46 – than any recording artist besides the Beatles, Elvis or Ray Charles, and she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide throughout her career.”
That’s a great passage because this was a very hard thing to fact-check. Let’s break it down.
Lee rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash or Muddy Waters, but in her prime, she was as popular as any of them. - The first sentence is opinion-based. You can't really prove or disprove that. The next sentence is chock full of facts, though.
In the Sixties, she earned more Hot 100 singles in the United States – 46 – than any recording artist besides the Beatles, Elvis or Ray Charles - First, we have the fact that she had 46 Hot 100 singles. And that's something that I would have just counted out using the Billboard archives. This sort of superlative statistic that 46 is more than any artist other than The Beatles, Elvis, and Ray Charles is something that is often repeated and published about Brenda Lee. When something has been reported a number of times, it's a helpful indicator that it is true. That’s not the be-all end-all, though. Sometimes mistruths get widely circulated. I don’t remember exactly, but I would like to think I did a bit of legwork to see if there were any artists in the 1960s who would have had more than that.
[S]he has sold more than 100 million records worldwide throughout her career. - Worldwide record sales are notoriously difficult to pin down. That figure is certainly something that I believe Brenda Lee's team probably told us. Now that I'm looking at this five years later, I would prefer if it said, “she has reportedly sold more than 100 million records”. It's possible that I read that fact somewhere reputable, like the New York Times, and felt confident without checking further. It's also possible that Brenda said that to me in our interview. I can't remember offhand.
Let's go to a slightly different passage: “Brenda Lee Tarpley’s first official performance was in 1951, at the age of seven, when she won the talent show at her elementary school, belting out the country standard ‘Slow Poke’ and Nat King Cole’s ‘Too Young.’” Is that something you’d just take her word for? I’m sure there’s no record of it.
Yes. I think that this is from her book. I mean there is no place that I could imagine that you could go to that would somehow have a contemporaneous record of Brenda Lee's first performances, especially going back to when she was seven years old. Looking at this now, if I had been given the story as a fact-checker, I might have even suggested saying something like, “The way Brenda Lee tells it…” It's possible that the editor would say, “No, we don't need to say that. We can adapt this as true.”
Regardless, I would have checked that in 1951 she would be seven. I would have checked that those song titles are spelt correctly. But, apart from that, I think we're going off of what she told me or told the world in her book.
Let’s do one more passage.
This is slightly nerve racking [chuckles].
Hopefully this one is a bit less so: “She barely even took time off to give birth to her first of two daughters in the spring of 1964: Before her baby had left the hospital, Lee was back onstage. By the time she was 25, the breakneck pace had caught up to her. In the fall of 1970, she canceled a series of shows after she was hospitalized for a week for what her spokesperson described at the time as ‘nervous exhaustion.’”
For this story, I went to Nashville to interview Brenda Lee, and it was an unbelievable experience. There haven't been that many times when I've actually been able to travel and spend time in person with the sources like that.
I had little bit of extra time and went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which has unbelievable resources for journalists and historians. You can just schedule a private session, and an archivist will show you a file of newspaper clippings on almost any artist. I spent at least an hour or two looking through all of these old clippings on Brenda Lee from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I am pretty sure that most of this paragraph came from one of those old clippings.
Again, if I had been fact-checking this story today, it’s possible I would have asked whether we wanted to attribute that. That's a constant question in fact-checking, like do we want to say, “According to the Bristol Herald in 1981…”? If the facts are disputed, sensitive, or contain allegations, we will often attribute them to a source. But there's no real reason to attribute when she gave birth to her two daughters because it's a pretty straightforward, uncontroversial fact. There's always a back-and-forth between fact-checkers, writers, and editors about whether we should be attributing what we're saying.
Offhand, can you think of an example of a fact that was very difficult to verify?
This isn’t exactly what you asked, but one time I was fact-checking a tiny, print-only piece about the Grateful Dead designer Wes Wilson. We mentioned his age, which he told us. If you're a pop star, there might be reasons to lie about your age, but if you're a non-public facing person and tell us your age, we will trust you on that.
For whatever reason, I looked him up in public records. It said that his age was either a year older or a year younger than he said it was. I reached out to him, and I was like, “Hey, I know you said you're 76, but are you actually 77?” He was 77. He made a mistake. That example is a good reminder that you can never be sure of anything, even when a nice elderly man is telling you how old he is.
I know you aren’t just a fact-checker, though. Given that you wrote that story about Brenda Lee, you’re obviously also a journalist. I want to talk about your journalism a little bit more. From what I can see, your stories often put music - and in many cases, country music - in a larger social context. Here are just a few headlines from stories you've written.
Do you think the context around music is always as important as the music itself?
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