New Yorker Eugene Scalia Labor Department Story: A Breakdown in Fact Checking

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia addresses the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 9, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The New Yorker asked DOL to verify easily searchable or outright absurd claims.

President Trump’s election led to an explosion in fact-checking as a journalism genre unto itself, but The New Yorker has been at it for nearly 100 years as part of the normal course of its work. And it takes pride in that pedigree.

A 2009 piece in the magazine laid out the process, in which writers submit their stories and the fact-checking department painstakingly vets every detail that can possibly be vetted.

“Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker’s imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick,” longtime editor Sara Lippincott, who worked in The New Yorker’s fact-checking department from 1966 until 1982, once said. The firewall is real, and writers enjoy it. “The process of independently verifying every assertion of fact in a story — every detail and hypothesis — is such a valuable and endangered art these days,” staff writer Evan Osnos wrote in 2009.

But it seems the supposedly airtight process broke down in the case of a 7,000-word article by contributor Eyal Press on Labor secretary Eugene Scalia’s alleged mishandling of COVID-related regulations, which appeared in The New Yorker’s October 26 issue.

Last week, the Department of Labor published a blog post claiming The New Yorker profile is “error-ridden” and relies on a combination of omission, inaccuracy, and outright spin to cast Scalia as “a wrecking ball aimed at workers” amid the ongoing pandemic.

The Scalia article centers around the DOL’s current practices at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), its regulatory agency.

Press uses a number of anecdotes to make the case that Scalia’s Labor Department poses a unique threat to worker safety: a former OSHA official who detailed how the agency “pulled off” inspectors doing a COVID-19 fatality inspection at a Walmart; a Virginia woman fired for requesting to work remotely who was “pressured” by an OSHA representative to “withdraw her complaint”; a McDonald’s employee in Chicago who wrote to OSHA multiple times to complain about his working conditions and accused the agency of “not doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.”

The allegations are certainly serious. But, according to emails and documents obtained by National Review, The New Yorker did not ask the DOL — which asked for and was given questions in writing — about any of the cases during their storied fact-checking process.

Instead, The New Yorker asked DOL to verify easily searchable or outright absurd claims, including that “Secretary Scalia has a modest temperament,” “Secretary Scalia graduated from the University of Chicago Law School where he was editor of the Law Review,” and “Mr. Scalia was nominated by President George W. Bush as solicitor of the DOL, but he was not confirmed and instead was given a one-year recess appointment.”

Fact-checker Natalie Meade did state in a follow-up email that she could “have other questions that might be OSHA specific,” but the only question that came was whether OSHA had “hired 40-50 new field safety inspectors/investigators across the country in recent months.” DOL told her it was actually 114, but the detail was not included in the final piece.

The article also prominently features an April policy memo on how OSHA would lower the requirements for tracking work-related coronavirus cases — a development “so roundly criticized that Scalia scuttled it.” One critique of the proposed plan came from Joseph Woodward, a former OSHA associate solicitor from 1992 to 2014, who wrote an April 25 letter to the Labor Department urging a change.

According to the article, Woodward’s request was granted but Scalia wasn’t happy about it.

“Scalia has bristled at criticism of his handling of the pandemic, accusing Woodward and others of failing to show ‘due respect for the steps the dedicated men and women at OSHA are taking,’” Press wrote.

The New Yorker does not attribute the “due respect” quote to anyone in particular, but an Internet search revealed that it comes from an April 30 letter Scalia wrote to AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka in response to a letter in which Trumka laid out his concerns about the DOL’s COVID regulations.

“President Trumka, thank you again for your letter,” the closing paragraph reads. “To reiterate, you make points we will consider. The coronavirus presents grave and shifting challenges that require sustained attention; we evaluate daily what additional steps we can and should take. I certainly share your concern for the workers who have died from COVID-19. And I respect all that the AFL-CIO and other unions have done through the years to protect workers. I ask that you show due respect for the steps the dedicated men and women at OSHA are taking now.”

Based on the letter’s text, Press’s claim that Scalia bristled at the request and accused Trumka of failing to show OSHA respect is misleading at best. And the implication that the letter — which does not even mention Woodward — could be construed as Scalia’s expressing his discontent with Woodward is laughable; Woodward has told The New Yorker as much and asked them to correct the record.

“This is incorrect as to me,” Woodward wrote in a subsequent letter obtained by National Review, which he sent to The New Yorker after Press’s profile was published. “I appreciated that the Department took the issues discussed in my letter seriously and reversed its position. Scalia did not criticize me for writing the letter.”

Whether The New Yorker will publish Woodward’s follow-up remains to be seen — the public-relations department did not return a request for comment by press time and hasn’t responded to the DOL’s request to publish a response.

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