Guided by a preoccupation with the subjectivity of facts, Elizabeth Moran uses photography, text, sound, and other forms of recorded documentation to examine the reliability of information and how evidence is often far from evident. Against the Best Possible Sources is part of an ongoing project including extensive research of the TIME, Inc. corporate archive and an investigation of the earliest history of the first professional fact-checkers, a position invented by the fledgling company in 1923 and held exclusively by women until 1971.
Reacting against the sensationalized, tabloid journalism of the era, TIME originally advertised their reporting as “written after the most exhaustive scrutiny of news-sources” with confirmed, reliable facts as its primary innovation and product. Indeed founders Henry Luce and Briton Hadden originally considered naming the weekly news magazine Facts. However this “exhaustive scrutiny” was considered women’s work from its inception. Early fact-checking manuals include instructions that the checkers must be blonde, must wear specific gloves depending on the time of year, must wear hat pins under 6-inches in length, and “must maintain their domestic list of chores.”
Nancy Ford was hired in early 1923 as the organization’s first so-called Girl Friday. As such, Ford laid the groundwork for fact-checking processes still in use to this day by supplying and verifying the facts for TIME’s writers. The only three reference books available to her and her colleagues were The Bible, Homer’s Iliad, and Xenophon’s Anabasis. For any other references or research, the early checkers (whose titles were eventually changed to ‘researchers’) went to the New York Public Library, which they used as a second office. By 1929 the female employees began organizing their years of research for TIME into their own in-house library, nick-named the Morgue. By the 1960s, the Morgue had grown to include 83,000 books and 500,000 folders of reference material and continued expanding through the 1990s when it was renamed the Time Warner Research Center.
Over time, the primary sources used by the fact-checkers have been retired into storage or eliminated completely. Following a merger in 2001, AOL-Time Warner announced the closing of the Research Center and laid-off its thirty-six full-time researchers. In 2013, the New York Public Library emptied the contents of seven of the building’s floors, which today still remain empty and inaccessible. In 2018, Forbes published an article titled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” In the summer of 2019, the Hamon Arts Library at Southern Methodist University moved much of its collection into basement-level compact shelving.
In this exhibition, Moran conflates this loss of primary sources with the untold stories and contributions of the early fact-checkers. Against the best possible sources consists of decommissioned library shelves found at SMU presented as skeletal remains emptied of their contents. Scattered throughout the shelves are bookends rendered useless save for their surfaces, which display images of found artifacts and office materials buried in TIME, Inc.’s archive. Only decommissioned library books of The Bible, Homer’s Iliad, and Xenophon’s Anabasis linger, replicating TIME’s first library now deemed unwanted. A slide carousel—another antiquated medium—flickers in the back of the gallery briefly illuminating photographs, internal memos, records, and other ephemera which shed light on the original fact-checkers. In her accompanying audio piece, Moran utilizes creative nonfiction strategies including a newly commissioned musical duet to unveil the simultaneous presence and absence of these women and their contribution to modern journalism.
Unfortunately, few first-person accounts of the women’s experiences remain. Instead, the majority of their stories are found only through the scribblings of their male colleagues still preserved in the company’s archives: hand-drawn cartoons, notes, and poems capture the prevailing sexism of the time. While female fact-checkers were considered subordinate to the male staff writers, the checkers had the power to kill any story that they could not fact check—a decision that would impact a writer’s income. One particular writer serenaded the checkers with a re-written Broadway song from 1950 (“They’re Not Lies They’re Just Not True” to the tune of “You’re Not Sick You’re Just In Love”) whenever they would kill one of his stories. Much like the absurd work manuals, this writer’s lyrics offer yet another sustained male gaze through which the women and their work was seen, recorded, and mythologized. Moran recomposes these questionable, secondary sources creating a new narrative that is both unreliable but also the most comprehensive account of the first fact-checkers that exists today.
Elizabeth Moran’s (b. 1984, Houston, TX) project-based practice examines the reliance on alleged objectivity within personal and societal systems of belief. Moran has received fellowships from the The San Francisco Foundation and the Tierney Family Foundation. Solo exhibitions include Cuchifritos Gallery, New York, NY; Black Crown Gallery, Oakland, California; and NYU’s Gulf and Western Gallery, New York, NY. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA; Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, California; Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, California; and Studio la Città, Verona, Italy. She has been an artist-in-residence at Vermont Studio Center, New York Art Residency and Studios (NARS) Foundation, Wassaic Project, Artists Alliance Inc’s LES Studio Program, and Rayko Photo Center. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker, WIRED, VICE, and British Journal of Photography, among others. Moran holds an MFA + MA in Visual & Critical Studies from California College of the Arts and a BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Olivia Smith (b. 1988, Dallas, TX) received her BFA in 2011 from SMU Meadows School of the Arts in Studio Art, Art History, and English, with a concentration in Poetry. After concluding an internship at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, she moved to New York City in 2012. Smith is the co-founder and director of Magenta Plains, a contemporary art gallery opened in March 2016 and located in the Lower East Side of NYC. One of the core missions at the gallery is to bring greater attention to significant art and artists regardless of age or career and to present context and meaning for the development of new ideas as well as to preserve older generation artists’ work. Among the thirty exhibitions to date at the gallery, Smith has organized critically acclaimed exhibitions with computer art pioneer Lillian Schwartz (b. 1927), minimalist painter Don Dudley (b. 1930), and avant-garde legend Barbara Ess (b. 1948). Exhibitions at Magenta Plains have been reviewed in The New York Times, Artforum, The New Yorker, Art In America, The Nation, Forbes, The New York Observer, Frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, Artnews, Artinfo, Artnet, and more.
Image credit: Elizabeth Moran, TIME, Reporting and Research, 1984.
Curatorial statement: Olivia Smith and Elizabeth Moran.