Lawson, author of Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of PL Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins, recently took the illustrious New York magazine to task over an article written by Caitlin Flanagan about Travers and her famous, umbrella-toting protagonist.

Although The New Yorker acknowledged Lawson as “the
author of the only comprehensive biography of Pamela Travers,” Lawson
was dismayed at the amount of material that she believed had been
unearthed by her original research but which Flanagan did not credit as
resulting from her work.

So Lawson brought the issue to the attention of the magazine whose famous fact-checkers aim, as longtime checker Martin Baron once put it, “To come as close as we can to verifying independently every fact in each issue of the magazine”:

In an e-mail this week, Ms. Flanagan told me she had
conducted dozens of interviews to support her own article. However much
of her article could not be supported by her interviews, as a great
deal of the information was derived from original research by myself
and information from primary sources. The information came from the
papers and correspondence of people who are now dead.

What followed was a protracted and at times excruciating email conversation (republished in full by Columbia Journalism Review) as Lawson and The New Yorker attempt
to find common ground. For simmering tension it doesn’t get much better
than this, the “Sincerely” sign offs belying a mutual distrust.

The
correspondence is a fascinating lesson in journalism and “offers a
glimpse at the sausage-factory aspect of how the magazine handles
complaints,” says CJR, raising “interesting questions about what journalists owe, in terms of recognition, to their sources.”

Peter Fray

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