SciWriteLabs 8.3: Adjudicating the Lehrer plagiarism accusations. Plus: Are we ignoring the truly frightening trends in journalism?*

Two weeks ago, Jim Romenesko revealed that Jonah Lehrer had recycled work from a 2011 Wall Street Journal column for a recent blog post on As anyone who has been following this knows, plenty more revelations followed, including accusations that Lehrer had plagiarized from New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell.

Last week, I pivoted off of the discussion about Lehrer in a piece on that attempted to codify some sort of judgment system — I called it the Blair scale, named after Jayson Blair — that could be used for journalistic transgressors. Several people also asked me to talk about this in a larger context, so I decided to round up some folks and do a new SciWriteLabs. I’m lucky these four pros agreed to participate; I think you’ll agree that the conversation that follows goes off in some interesting directions. (This entry is the final of three; the first one, which talked about consequence-free plagiarism, rules for blogging, and much else, is here, and the second one, which pondered whether it’s kosher to recycle Facebook updates in “real” journalism and whether we need a Son of Sam law for media miscreants, is here. Given the subject matter, I also feel compelled to note that this introductory passage is virtually identical for all three entries.)

Without further ado, our esteemed panel:

Deborah Blum – Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, among many other books; Wired Science blogger; professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

David Quammen – Author of Song of the Dodo, among many other books, including the upcoming Spillover, about zoonotic diseases; three time National Magazine Award winner.

Jack Shafer – Press and politics columnist for; longtime media critic; former editor of Washington City Paper. (Note: Jack didn’t weigh in on this final entry; his thoughts can be found in the earlier ones.)

Carl Zimmer – Author of A Planet of Viruses, among many other books; frequent contributor to The New York Times and National Geographic, among other publications; Discover Magazine blogger.

Seth: David, last week, you raised a number of authors who have published books they’ve claimed are non-fiction: John Berendt, Truman Capote, Lillian Hellmann, and James Frey. That’s a whole other interesting conversation that hopefully we can have one day soon, but it might be too much to deal with here. I would look to take a look at the most serious allegations against Lehrer: plagiarism. This gets back to something Deborah implicitly raised when she talked about a second rush to judgment that criticized the criticizers. While I think some of the hand-wringing about Lehrer’s journalistic onanism (h/t to Jack for that phrase) might be a little over-the-top, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. I do have a problem with what I think are inaccurate accusations of plagiarism. As far as I know, these stem from three paragraphs in Imagine that Edward Champion linked to some of Malcolm Gladwell’s work.

The first two examples both come from a Gladwell piece that ran in 2000 titled “Designs for Working.” (The repeated examples are in bold.)

“Allen found that the likelihood that any two people will communicate drops off dramatically as the distance between their desks increases: we are four times as likely to communicate with someone who sits six feet away from us as we are with someone who sits sixty feet away. And people seated more than seventy-five feet apart hardly talk at all.” — Gladwell, “Designs for Working,” The New Yorker (12/11/00)

“…he came up with the likelihood that any two people in the same office will communicate. The curve is steep: according to Allen, a person is ten times more likely to communicate with a colleague who sits at a neighboring desk than with someone who sits more than fifty meters away.” — Imagine, p. 153.


 “It had short blocks, and short blocks create the greatest variety in foot traffic. It had lots of old buildings, and old buildings have the low rents that permit individualized and creative uses. And, most of all, it had people, cheek by jowl, from every conceivable walk of life..” — Gladwell, “Designs for Working”

“The Village had short city blocks, which were easier for pedestrians to navigate. It had lots of old buildings — Jacob’s street was mostly nineteenth-century tenements and townhouses — with relatively cheap rents, and cheap rents encouraged a diversity of residents.” — Imagine, p. 182.

Calling this plagiarism — and I want to be clear that Champion is far from the only person who labelled it thusly; that Knight Journalism Tracker post accused Lehrer of “cop[ying] a paragraph” and “recycl[ing] the work of other writers” — seems mildly hysterical to me. I’d bet dollars to donuts that Gladwell’s work was the source of those two nuggets about Thomas Allen and Jane Jacobs and I think Lehrer screwed up by not making this clear. (I also think Lehrer’s source notes are woefully inadequate, but that’s another issue.) In my own work, I give credit to the person whose reporting turned me on to a study or conclusion, as I did in this passage from The Panic Virus: “Conventional wisdom holds the more emotional a decision, the less rational it is, but in his 2009 book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer explains that is not always the case. He describes the case of a patient named Eliot who in 1982 had a tumor removed from an area of the brain just behind the frontal cortex.” But repeating “the likelihood that any two people will communicate” and “it had lots of old buildings” seems well shy of what’s needed to start throwing around accusations of one of journalism’s cardinal sins.

The third example is a little trickier:

“One of the highest-grossing movies in history, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ was offered to every studio in Hollywood, Goldman writes, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars? . . . Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.’” – Gladwell, “The Formula,” The New Yorker, 10/16/06

“For instance, one of the highest-grossing movies in history, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was offered to every studio in Hollywood, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes?’ Goldman asks. ‘Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars…? Because nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.’” — Imagine, p. 144.

Note that I only bolded the portion of those sections that are not part of William Goldman’s quotation — more on that shortly. This is, I think, the best argument that can be made for Lehrer being guilty of plagiarism — but I still think it’s pretty weak. Again, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that Gladwell’s article was where Lehrer originally found the Goldman anecdote; extrapolating from there, one media critic wrote that the “devil is in the ellipsis,” implying that the fact that both Lehrer and Gladwell compressed Goldman’s quote in the same manner proves that Lehrer lifted from Gladwell without even citing the source material. It’s an interesting idea — but it’s not one that’s actually reported out. If you take a further look at Gladwell’s story and Lehrer’s book, you can see that not only did Gladwell changed Goldman’s spelling of goddam to goddamn while Lehrer left it as Goldman had written it — something that would have been impossible for Lehrer to do had he solely relied on Gladwell’s article — but that Lehrer also quotes from sections of Goldman’s book that do not appear in Gladwell’s article.

When a case is this Talmudic, as Carl says, I think it’s worth going to the aggrieved party — Gladwell, in this case. Not only did he blurb Imagine — which presumably means he read it and didn’t think Lehrer had ripped him off — he’s called the accusations “absurd” and “ridiculous.”

David: I agree that the only instance worth much attention is the Goldman/Gladwell paragraph.  Looks like plagiarism, yes. Shouldn’t happen.  Is it possibly a reflection of moving too quickly, writing too much, grabbing up information and culling sources too greedily in order to offer brainy analysis?  Those “scoops of analysis” you mention?  That’s my guess.  Moving too quickly, plus too little ethical compass.  Didn’t Alex Haley and Stephen Ambrose and even Doris Kearns Goodwin get into some trouble about lifted passages (that’s not an assertion about those three, just a question; I don’t remember details) once they were famous and successful and publishing many books quickly, probably each of the star writers with an atelier of research assistants helping? (Ed: yes, yes, and yes.) I think some of this problem just comes, especially today, in the blog environment, from people writing too quickly, too much.  I’ve said this before, in my cranky-old-man voice: “Problem is, young people today–they type too goddamn well.” This isn’t a problem for me.  I type and think and write like a snail.

Deborah: And I agree as well that the Goldman-Gladwell paragraph is the only one worth real attention here. I occasionally will catch this kind of slip as a writing instructor. It’s the electronic cut and paste – students copy a paragraph here and there meaning to rewrite them later, as placeholders for a point they want to make. But they’re in a hurry so they don’t rewrite and the original copy slips through. Or they forget to mark the passage and it just slides through. Are we not teaching young writers that this is wrong? We can, as David suggests here, reinforce standards by public example (and embarrassment) of writers who side-step professional standards. But can you teach an ethical compass?

In the case of plagiarism, I think, the Lehrer case makes a poor example. Not just because the general consensus is that this is “marginal” lifting. But because the lifting, if that’s what it is, was taken from the work of a very supportive friend. And I mention that because years ago, I did a series of reports on an animal behavior conference for a science news website and another writer at another website lifted them almost entirely verbatim, tweaking the leads a little but no more. My website had its lawyers send a cease and desist letter and the competing website yanked the stories. But I can tell you that when I was reading my work, with another person’s name on it, it felt like literal, tangible theft. As if I’d been walking down the street and encountered someone wearing my clothes. And I did not feel like a supportive friend to this other writer. In any way.

But – and here I’ll go ahead sound cranky myself – if we’re looking for this public Lehrer example to shock young writers, to emphasize to them that stealing another’s words is actually theft, then I think we’re deluding ourselves. No outrage from Gladwell, no real acknowledgment from Lehrer. Call it more line with  changing attitudes, more in sync with the Pirate Party, anti-DRM argument that knowledge is free and good words are there for the taking.

And given that, maybe we are making a lot of noise over an episode that’s unlikely to change too much.

Seth: I’m not sure if our not being shocked by the Lehrer-Gladwell example points to a declining ethical compass or lack of suitable moral outrage; I think it just points to this being kind of a ridiculous example to get all hot and bothered about. Instead of dealing with some of the real problems plaguing news — the un-realities portrayed when false equivalencies supersede the truth; the whole-sale gutting of sections (and staffs) dedicated to topics, foremost among them being science, that required specialized knowledge; the naked campaigning by broadcast news outlets who insist on claiming they’re just reporting the facts, ma’am — we get upset about recycling (or whatever it is we ultimately decide Lehrer did). I’ve gotten more than a few messages from people who believe Lehrer should never work again. I’d rather some of that energy be focused on people like Lou Dobbs, who gave oxygen to a demonstrably false conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace for weeks on end; or Arianna Huffington, who similarly prints demonstrably false dreck and also takes horrible advantage of struggling writers by essentially telling them that their pay comes in the form of cachet; or Oprah, who arguably has done more harm to the health and wellness of viewers than any other media personality ever.

Carl: I agree — given the low “Blair-o-meter” score Seth rightly gave this particular case, I’ve been puzzled by all the buzz it’s gotten. I understand that a prominent magazine like The New Yorker and Lehrer’s recent visit to the New York Times best-seller list give it a cachet, but the facts themselves don’t rise to the occasion. I get the sense that a lot of people piling on Lehrer are writers themselves who feel that it’s unfair for someone who cuts corners to enjoy these successes. But I think this ends up being merely a pleasant little game of outrage. It’s addictive to journalists, because it’s a relief from the truly frightening trends out there.

The details of the Lehrer affair are rapidly being supplanted in my own brain by what I’ve been learning today about a company called Journatic. It makes its money replacing the local news coverage that newspapers can’t do themselves, because they’re laying off so many reporters in order to balance their books. How does Journatic make this arrangement so appealing to these big newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune? By supplying them with hundreds of thousands of stories for a pittance. And how do they accomplish that editorial feat? By hiring people in the Philipines, Africa, and Eastern Europe to write stories about school board meetings and other local events in the United States for thirty-five cents a story, or less. (You can read about it at Poynter, and listen to a report on the latest episode of This American Life.)

Ethical disasters abound. The reporters allegedly lie about where they work, and get fake local phone numbers to fool their sources. Their articles end up with fake bylines, which the Tribune belatedly started to investigate when This American Life pointed them out. Even worse is the general corruption that Journatic represents: a news culture in which it doesn’t matter if local news gets reported by people from another continent who are trying to get as many stories done each day to add up to a living. Because all that really matters is flooding a newspaper site with as many stories as possible, to get as many clicks as possible.

It’s reasonable to hope that Jonah Lehrer learns his lesson, cleans up his act, and achieves his full promise as a writer. But I don’t have much hope that anyone can stop Journatic and what it represents.

Seth: And with that, maybe we should wrap this up and save the rest of our discussion of Arianna and Oprah and Journatic for a future confab. Thanks again to the panel for taking part in a great discussion — and see you all down the road.

Note: The first iteration of this headline read, “Plus: Do Arianna and Oprah deserve lifelong bans?” A colleague at PLoS pointed out that since we didn’t address the meat of that question in this post, it might be more appropriate to highlight something else in the headline.

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