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 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.
Last week, 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 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 Reuters.com; 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.)