Lehrer’s transgressions are inexcusable—but I can’t help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I’m 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.
From here, an article by Charles Seife, the man hired by Wired.com to look into whether Jonah Lehrer’s (unedited) blog posts for the site contained the same kind of recycling, plagiarism and lies that he has been found guilty of in his books and at the New Yorker. Short version: Yes, so much so that Seife suggests that Lehrer’s “moral compass” may be broken when it comes to journalism. Which, you know, is kind of a bold thing to say, really.
Over at Poynter, Seife is interviewed about the article, and he says something that really resonates with my experience as a blogger-turned-journalist (If that’s what I am?):
Seife worried that this sort of instant publishing “is a double-edged sword.” Editors might have slow you down as a writer and robbed you of some freedom, but “at the same time they protected you,” he said.
“They made sure they challenged you. They forced you to think harder about your work, and if you screwed up, they kicked your ass. Lehrer, I think it’s really sad because I do think he’s a very clear writer, he’s able to distill ideas very well.
“And I think that if he had a bit more oversight early on in his career, if he had a good editor or two to kick his butt, I think he might have become a star that would never have fallen.”
I remain compelled by this whole thing, for selfish reasons. I can’t stop myself hoping that someone writes a book about it, weirdly.