“He Was Operating, Most of The Time, Without A Safety Net”

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.

The Gravity of His Position

The news that Jonah Lehrer is resigning from the New Yorker having been revealed to have made up “quotes” from (and about) Bob Dylan in his most recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Oh, irony of ironies, that title) is as depressing as it is surprising. This statement from Lehrer on the matter, just depressing:

The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan [Matt Moynihan, the journalist who uncovered that the quotes were fake]. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.

The thing I just don’t understand about this is… there was no way this was never going to be discovered. Even if we didn’t live in a world where the Internet has made it amazingly easy to fact-check things, Lehrer was writing about a musician who fans are obsessive about, so the discovery of “new” quotes was always going to be of interest – and looked into – for/by them. It’s one of those “I don’t understand why he’s done it” things, because he had to have known that he was going to be found out. It’s as if there’s some epic self-sabotage going on here.

I had – back when it seemed as if Lehrer was simply stealing from himself and recycling without telling anyone – a lot of sympathy for him, knowing just what it’s like to have to continually come up with new thoughts over and over again. But this… this is just sad. He’s killed his career with this. People will never take him seriously again.

No Time, No Time At All

Most of us journalists have one great idea every few months, maybe two if we drink industrial levels of caffeine. For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there’s no liquid left and pray you’ve bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.

Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired.

– From Josh Levin’s Slate piece about Jonah Lehrer’s self-plagarism coming to light.

I’m too filled with deadlines (Blogging deadlines, of course) to respond to this story the way I want right now, and my brain is too scattered to come up with the coherence that I’d need anyway, but I wanted to pull out that above quote nonetheless. I find it particularly compelling because it points out the weird unforgiving cycle of blogging versus fresh ideas, and how exhausting it is; talking to Kate this morning about everything that lay ahead today, I told her that I owe Time a new set of pitches for next week’s essay, even though this week’s only went live this morning. “You need to do that already?” she asked. It is, admittedly, a strange and exhausting rhythm to find yourself in.