Last week, Jim Romenesko revealed that Jonah Lehrer had recycled work froma 2011 Wall Street Journal column for a recent blog post on NewYorker.com. As anyone who has been following this knows, plenty more revelations followed, including accusations that Lehrer had plagiarized from New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell.
Yesterday, I pivoted off of the discussion about Lehrer in a piece on Salon.com 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 second of three; the first one, which talked about consequence-free plagiarism, rules for blogging, and much else, is here. The final entry will run on Monday. Given the subject matter, I also feel compelled to note that this introductory passage will be virtually identical for all three entries.)
Without further ado, our esteemed panel:
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 Reuters.com; longtime media critic; former editor of Washington City Paper.
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: We ended yesterday’s discussion with Jack asking what it was, exactly, that we were all talking about; let’s pick it up there.
Jack: I’m saying that the brevity of Lehrer’s non-apology apology leaves us without much of a understand of what he thought he was doing by double-dribbling copy. I’m sure that had Lehrer got caught doing at college what he’s done at the New Yorker, he’d have been reprimanded. Why would he think that double-dribbling at the New Yorker was not punishable? (Hell, maybe it isn’t punishable at the New Yorker. According to this Romenesko post, just delivered by Twitter, he’s not been suspended by the magazine and his Web editor says his work will appear there again “soon.” Maybe his only punishment will be the public shaming.)
David: I think the core issue here, connecting (tenuously) the Lehrer kerfuffle with the more serious Blair and Glass cases (and the case of my friend Mike Finkel) is education of audience. I believe we need to do that: educate audiences better, so that they can distinguish shit from Shinola. Presently the average reader, god bless him and her, is pretty casual on the issues of unacknowledged recycling, factoidal jive passed off as nonfiction, lying memoir, etc. I could cite a list of further cases (Greg Mortenson, my neighbor here in Bozeman…) but I won’t. You know the list as well as I. Readers don’t think about or recognize the ethics, protocols, rules, and self-imposed codes of journalism and nonfiction writing nearly as much as we (or anyway, some of us) practitioners do. Readers like melodrama and sentiment and tall tale and shapely narrative. They say things like, “What does it matter, whether the facts check out, if it’s a good story.” Oprah, for gosh sake, has said that (before she re-thought, and came down hard on James Frey). This is a severe problem for any of us who try to offer high-quality Shinola. We’re offering wasted value. Jonah Lehrer’s little implicit fibs about what’s new and what’s recycled are merely part of that larger issue…in my opinion. Shit and Shinola in the nonfiction realm.
And Finkel, I want to add, is one of the exempla that should give hope and latitude to Jonah Lehrer. We readers, we writers, and we editors shouldn’t make quick judgments on the death of careers. Some of these guys, who make a mistake or an offense–and GET IT that they’ve crossed a line–come back and are chastened and do valuable work, having learned a lesson. They have talent and wit and, sometimes more than many of their colleagues, they see the importance of being careful, rigorous, candid, honest. Let them, excuse the expression, be born again.
But if they’re just clever careerists, not writers at their core, then the profession doesn’t need them. Readers don’t need them. Seth, you’ll know better than the rest of us whether that harsh judgment applies to, say, Jayson Blair.
Seth: David, this is some of what I dealt with in my (mostly humorous) Blair-O-Meter piece on Salon.com, which attempts to devise an actual scale that dictates whether an offender gets off with a warning, parole, or a life sentence. (Various sins–fabrication, plagiarism, etc–are each being worth a certain number of Blairs.) Jayson’s sins, according to my calculation, are good for multiple life sentences; Finkel — a one-time offender who fabricated details for a 2001 New York Times Magazine story about child slavery in the Ivory Coast — should be permitted to seek professional redemption, which, as you point out, he has now done. This is someplace where I know Jack and I disagree. Five years ago, in Slate, he had this to say about Finkel’s case:
If I had the constitution of a hanging judge, which I don’t, I’d have sent Finkel directly to the gallows for his Youssouf lies. He deliberately wrote things that were not true and called the work journalism. If that doesn’t constitute a professional death wish, I don’t know what does.
Two other points you made, David, that I want to return to: You wrote that Lehrer’s readers had been “implicitly lied to, in being led to understand that the material in each case was fresh.” Is that equally true if a writer’s value-added comes from scoops, scooplets, investigative nuggets, etc. versus what my old boss, Seth Lipsky, used to call scoops of analysis? Because that’s what it seems that idea journalists like Lehrer or Gladwell are trafficking in: They’re not selling readers on their ability to unearth fresh information that the world would never have known had it not been for their shoe-leather reporting; they’re selling readers on their ability to elucidate new/novel ways of understanding the world. That seems like an important distinction to me. And finally, vis a vis shit & Shinola (which, I just discovered, is the name of a new upscale watch brand — now there’s some investigative reporting for you): This is definitely one of those cases when I wish I had the reach of a pollster and could figure out what the hoi polloi thinks of all this. One reason so much (electronic) ink has been spilled over Lehrer is that journalists/writers love talking about themselves. Is another part that we’re worried these scandals–ginned up or not–have the inevitable effect of further eroding our reputation among the broader public?
As for Carl’s points — first off, thanks for sharing that story about your aborted assignment. When you and I were talking about this last week, I pushed back a little on your self-flagellation. You write that blogs have become more codified, and are now real things as opposed to virtual scratchpads. That’s undoubtedly true — but I do think the situation is a little murkier than you describe it. Today, many journalists have publicly accessible Facebook pages that are distinct from their personal Facebook profiles. Is it kosher to take something you posted there and use it in your blog — or, for that matter, in a magazine article — without some sort of ridiculous sounding disclaimer (“Sections of story previously appeared in my public Facebook stream”)? If you coin a particularly pithy one-liner on Twitter, do you need to reference that before using it in any of your other work? Would it have made any difference if your blog post was on carlzimmer.com and not on The Loom, your Discover Magazine blog? (Also, you wrote, “When we started, we had no elaborate ethics guide to flip through to make sure what we were doing conformed to a well-established code.” Do we now have this type of ethics guide? If so, let me know where to pick one up…)
Deborah: I’m not particularly troubled by the brevity of Lehrer’s “apology.” Long self-justifying explanations (which are also often slightly self-pitying) never really do much for me. Is this a facile thought? Sure. But a strategic one. It’s straight out of the strategic communication playbook taught at many communication schools – admit fault, refuse to talk to talk about it further, wait for the issue to just dry up and blow away.
Do we as journalists make too many excuses for our colleagues? My experience is that we go easier on journalists who’ve achieved a certain amount of success already – they have influential friends to defend them and try to help them. Jack’s example of Stephen Glass is an example of that. Or Mike Barnacle from The Boston Globe, who was let go for plagiarism and reinvented himself on cable TV. It’s less true for journalists without those resources – at regional papers I worked at both in Florida and California, plagiarists were fired and mostly drifted out of the profession.
So do the actions of Lehrer and others (not getting into comparing offenses here) contribute to the general perception that we journalists are a less than ethical profession? Maybe. And that’s important because we are journalists as well as writers. We spend much of careers criticizing the ethics and morals of others. And that certainly raises a question of whether we should be held, at least, to some very strong professional standards regarding honesty and integrity. Most of us follow those standards anyway (or so I hope) but certainly the perception that we don’t place a high value on such a work ethic can work against us.
And that’s where I think it would be helpful – or much classier, at least – for Lehrer to have opened up a longer and more thoughtful discussion of what he did, what journalist standards are and should be, and why this is so important. His response was basically self-defensive and so he didn’t really do much to stand up for the profession itself. Is that his job? No. Would I have applauded it? Yes. Did it make people think anyway? I just talked to a blogger today who said she was paying much more attention these days to acknowledging her previous work in posts. So at least in the short term – the bad example encourages others to set better examples.
Finally, I want to say something in response to Carl’s point about blogging itself. I’m not a pioneer like he is and I can’t speak to – although I can envy – the wonderfully innovative early days of blogging. But as someone who blogs today I find myself having to respond with the downside of the legacy of the early blogging environment. There’s something of a leftover stereotype still about blogging being self-indulgent and less than professional. Without wanting it to become boring or stultifying, I would like to make a case that the same standards that I’m going on about here should increasingly applied to today’s bloggers – at least those in a professional network. There’s so extraordinarily good work being done by bloggers; there are many exceptional science writers working as bloggers. And yet, I think, we won’t gain public acceptance of the quality of that work until we ourselves accept that same quality and raise our expectations for it.
Seth: A couple of quick points: I think everyone agrees that someone like Glass should never have the opportunity to write journalism again, and I’m mystified as to why Jann Wenner thought it was a good idea to give him an assignment — it doesn’t even seem like the type of thing rubbernecker scandal mongers would want to read. (The resulting piece, which reads more like a 20-inch daily newspaper quickie than a reported feature, was painfully dull.) I do think The Fabulist falls into a different category since it was labeled as fiction…and I definitely wouldn’t argue for a Son of Sam law for media misdeeds.
Deborah, as for your comments about blogging, I actually think that those standards are applied to bloggers — at least those who, as you say, are in a professional network. You write for the Wired blog network, Carl writes for Discover Blogs, Jack writes for Reuters Blogs, I write for PLoS Blogs — and I think all of us assume our work will get picked apart and scrutinized in the same way it would if it appeared in print. Part of the issue might be that the term “blog” has become pretty meaningless: Is it anything that exists solely online? Is it something that gets filed without being reviewed by an editor?
David: Just a few thoughts on the above.
1) Jack, re the brevity of Lehrer’s “non-apology apology”: Isn’t it possible that this young guy is just hunkering down, embarrassed, shamefaced, maybe confused, acknowledging wrong but then waiting for the storm to pass? He hasn’t tweeted in about ten days, has he? Seems fairly human that he’d stick his head up just long enough to say, “Sorry!,” then lay low.
2) Deborah, re the amount of attention we journalists give to these cases: I think they concern us not because we’re worried the public will start to distrust our profession, but for a reason almost opposite to that. Cheaters make it look easy to offer wildly dramatic pieces of factoidal jive and self-recycled profundities, in great abundance–and their counterfeiting replaces, and erodes the value of, our real, painstaking efforts. We want them found out and denounced loudly and punished because their bogus offerings give the public false expectations about what a real journalist, a real nonfiction writer, is able to do with the disorderly material of the world.
Finally, and related to point 2), I have to say that I find the Lehrer case much less important, much less interesting, and much less threatening to the values I hold dear (those of literary nonfiction as well as hard journalism) than the cases of Blair, Glass, Janet Cook, John Berendt (okay, that wasn’t a “case,” just a jived-up book offered as “nonfiction,” and on the bestseller list for nineteen years or so), Truman Capote, Lillian Hellmann, James Frey (granted, memoirs are a different can of worms), and others.
Carl: On Seth’s scale of journalistic offenses, I think many others rank far higher than Lehrer’s sins. A few days ago, for example, we learned of Paresh Jha, a reporter for a newspaper here in Connecticut, who just made up stories–perhaps 25 of them, including two that won journalism awards. Such a streak of fabrication far outstrips what Lehrer has done. And I frankly don’t think Lehrer’s case has much of an effect outside the gossipy circles of journalists. Certainly it hasn’t led people to stop buying his new book, Imagine: it’s currently #67 on Amazon.
Seth hits on exactly what I consider important about Lehrer’s case. Many writers these days don’t produce isolated literary jewels, separated from one another by months or years of silence. Many of us instead produce a flow of words. We are writing Facebook status updates, tweets, comments on other people’s blog posts, and on and on. Does all of this writing now rise to the level of major pieces published in big newspapers and magazines? Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could be so blindingly original that there wouldn’t be some overlap between what ends up in these different formats. It’s an unrealistic expectation. In fact, it makes me wonder about some of our pre-Internet journalist heroes. If H.L. Mencken’s newspaper writing, books, and other pieces of writing were picked apart by the same crowd-sourced band of inspectors who have worked through Lehrer’s work, I suspect they would find plenty of overlap.
Yet I also won’t be recycling stuff willy-nilly. If I am working on a large story, I will not pull sizeable chunks from previous pieces. Editors don’t like it, I now know, and I don’t like it either. I don’t want my readers getting a queasy sense of deja vu every time they start an article of mine. I want them to dive in, wanting to know what I’ve been learning about recently.