My first job out of college, and my first paid job in journalism, was as a research editor for Islands magazine, based in Santa Barbara, CA.
Research editor is fancy masthead-speak for fact-checker. It was a peculiar and fascinating job that improved my Jeopardy! skills and provided a factory of cocktail party arcana. Each fact in an article had to be independently verified by a "reputable source," and in an average feature article, there may have been 200 facts. Such tunnel-visioned search for truth was a good fit for my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and it was not at all uncommon for me to get so immersed in the hunt that I lost all sense of my surroundings.
My cubicle sat in an archipelago of cubicles on the open floor, and given this was the Wild West days of the Internet (2002-2005), much of the work of verification was done on the phone.
One day I was on the landline with someone in the islands of Kerkennah, a little-known group of islands off the coast of Tunisia (we seemed to have a bottomless long-distance calling account; thank you Bill Kasch!). I scribbled furiously in my legal pad as I ran through a list of questions, oblivious to whatever my coworkers were doing around me.
That is, until the entire room erupted in laughter. What was so funny? I rewound my conversation a few seconds. What was the last thing I said?
"Just to be sure--do the camels have one hump or two?"
This perfectly represents the absurdly fastidious nature of the job, which my colleagues with less punctilious jobs found hilarious. And just when you thought no one would care if you got the camel species wrong, we'd get a letter from some biology professor appalled at our ignorance (they were Dromedary camels, for the record).
Twenty years later, I am grateful that I got my start as a fact-checker. Especially given the subject matter of professional wrestling, in which the truth can seem as variable as a chameleon. For example, today I met with Johanna Rivera-Esquivel, whose father Jose Luis Rivera was one of the most consistent jobbers for the WWF in the 1980s ("jobbers" were the gimmickless guys who always lost on your Saturday morning programming; doing a "job" means losing the match).
Since Rivera wasn't a star, little is known about his career and life. There's little printed history of wrestling to begin with (as a hybrid between sports and entertainment, it had no home in newspaper pages), leaving the Internet as my primary source. But even then, the Internet is no oracle (little O, Larry). While some believe that the Internet can allow for fewer fact-checkers, we must be cautious, as Obi-Wan might say.
To wit: Wikipedia says that Jose Luis Rivera was born in 1960; a few minutes with his daughter at a Starbucks in Jersey is all I need to learn that he was actually born in 1953. And from there, the fact-checking continues. By the end of the conversation, the world will have learned a lot more of the truth of Jose Luis (for example, his actual name is Marcelino) and yet another improbable story of success in the bizarre world of pro wrestling.
Brad Balukjian is on a nine-week road trip, driving 16,000 miles around the country for his next book, The Six Pack, to be published by Hachette in 2024, about myth vs. reality in pro wrestling and the true identities of 1980s WWF wrestlers. To read past posts, click on the back arrow below.