West Wing Continuity Guide
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There are two schools of thought about facts that are referred to in a fictional story:
  1. It's fiction and everyone knows it is fiction and fiction is by definition not factual so why should anyone expect facts mentioned in a story to be accurate?
  2. When your fiction is suppose to seem "realistic" as opposed to "fantasy", someone should check the facts or the author runs the risk of jarring people out of the story or giving out false information that people may absorb and use in some form or another.

Mr. Sorkin has been heard to call his writing "our little stories" (in the forum he visited at Television Without Pity) and to imply that therefore no one could expect the facts mentioned in such stories to be accurate.

But throughout human history, stories have been the way we have passed on information to each other and especially to our children. Schools are a recent invention. Our cultural heritage has until very recently been conveyed wholly by stories. We are conditioned to learn from stories. And until the last century almost no one had a way to check the facts presented in stories (or in any other format) and so most people believed everything they were told whether it started out as fiction or as fact. How many homes in the world had an encyclopedia before 1950? Even after 1950! How many people before the advent of the Internet, had a chance to check facts at a good library easily and whenever they wanted?

There are, of course, plenty of people who don't "believe" things they hear in stories. In fact one needs to doubt even "non-fiction" no matter what authority is being quoted! Yet facts that one hears from friends, family, preachers, teachers, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc. have a tendency to seep into our minds without being checked.

We know not to believe everything we read, and yet we have to watch ourselves to make sure we don't. We often can't even remember how we acquired some piece of information we remember having come across. We hear or read something and it seems reasonable at the time and we start to think it is accurate and so we tell it to others. Then one day, someone says, "That's not true. Look here at the Encyclopaedia Britannica," and it turns out we've been wrong.

Well, it is the opinion of the editors of this site that the writers and producers of a "realistic" show like "The West Wing" should hire some college kid to spend several hours checking on the facts mentioned in each script before the scripts are filmed! If the unions won't let the production company hire someone part time to do this, we think it is worthwhile to put someone on staff who knows a fact when he or she sees one and knows how to check to see if it is accurate. But surely there are internships that could include this kind of addition to the staff.

Brill's Content has called this show educational for its presentation of the problems surrounding the census in "Mr. Willis of Ohio". The show has mentioned little known Nobel Prize winners (Dr. Norman Borlaug) and notable women and interesting information about how the maps we have been shown may have distorted our views of the world. But if we can't trust the show to be accurate, we can't learn anything from any of the charming facts that the writers have occasionally thrown into their stories!

When Toby mentions that "Honor Thy Father" is the third commandment, we should be able to expect that to have been checked before being filmed, because Toby would know this sort of information! When Toby mentions that "Jamestown was the 16th century", we should be able to accept that as true. Toby is smart. When he is correcting people, he should be accurate. If he is spouting mis-information, we could start to believe that Toby is really just a blow hard pretending to be smart. And if that is true, Toby is a very different character than we had thought he was.

If the writer of realistic fiction feels that he or she has to fudge the facts in order to make a point, we do not claim that he can't. We thought it was interesting (even amusing) that Sorkin claimed in "The Midterms" that "physicists had come up with a theory of everything" and we assume that he knew that he was exaggerating their progress. Since the world of the West Wing is not the real world, one can occasionally show off some difference and to do so is called "poetic license". But when a writer thinks he is spouting a fact but he gets it jumbled, that is an entirely different kettle of fish and we call that a mistake that we expect a show that costs more than a million per episode could afford to check before they film.

Even if they do hire someone to check their facts, there are, of course, going to be mistakes that creep in. But for no one to even bother checking is unprofessional and we don't care if most of the other television shows also don't bother checking their facts (if the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you do so, too?)! "The West Wing" is a higher quality show and should be held to a higher standard with the hope that it can increase awareness of facts in the fantasy world of Hollywood.

We are aware that the above essay makes it seem that we think there are all kinds of black and white facts in the world. We are, however, aware that there are a lot of "facts" that are open to interpretation and that one century's facts often turn into another century's nonsense. And maybe it will be discovered some day that someone was at the Court of Charlemagne eight years before Charlemagne became king of the Franks, but we rather doubt it! Or that Beowolf was really written in Middle English instead of Old English but that really does seem unlikely and with the information we have now, we are sure that it makes an intelligent man seem less intelligent to say these things (remember Bartlet is suppose to be the intelligent candidate in the Presidential election that takes place in the fourth season of the show).

On the other hand, we admit that we have learned a lot by tracking down the mistakes Sorkin and Company have spouted on this show. We haven't caught all that many of the mistakes ourselves, it is the readers of this site that report most of these facts to us. But if we didn't run this website and didn't have access to the complaints of the viewers, we wonder if we still wouldn't be believing much of the mis-information presented on this show (we at first believed, for instance, the statement that the U.S. Government spent money to produce a pen that would write in zero gravity). We feel there is enough mis-information in the world and we recommend that this show present a lot less of it in the future.

So here is our advice to a show that never listens to us: Hire a fact checker!

Send us your opinions between July 17 and July 24th. If you want to agree, give additional reasons why they should hire a fact checker. If you want to disagree, give reasons. And read the rules first! Note: we are changing the number of words allowed for this subject. 200 (up from 125)

See the Responses.

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