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From Wunderkind to Washed-Up? How Editors are Appraising Jonah Lehrer’s Actions

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Like an Icarus in street clothes, former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer has plummeted from print journalism’s highest summits to possible editorial exile.

EWA asked several editors—Liz McMillen of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed and Jason Wermers of Statesboro Herald in Georgia—to share their views on Jonah Lehrer resigning this week from The New Yorker for altering and inventing some of the statements in his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” that were attributed to Bob Dylan. The responses by the editors touch upon the severity of his transgression, his chances of rebounding, and whether they would ever hire Mr. Lehrer.

On Ever Hiring Mr. Lehrer

McMillen: What Jonah Lehrer did is every editor’s worst nightmare, or at least, it’s one of mine. Will he have a second act as a writer? It’s entirely possible, though I would not hire him to write for me. I just couldn¹t trust his work, except for “By Jonah Lehrer”. (He was a fabulist, not a plagiarist, as far as we know.)

Apart from the very public drubbing he is receiving, which at times feels excessive, the problem that the Lehrer case raises for me is about the dangers and the allure of punditry for all of us. More than ever, we need expertise, especially in writers like Lehrer who report on science and ideas. We definitely need insight. What we don’t need are professional “geniuses” such as Lehrer had become.

Jaschik: To me, fabrication is the kind of transgression that would make me reluctant to hire someone ever. Journalism relies on the trust of readers. I don’t see how we can hope to preserve that if publications hire people who make things up. But I also think it’s important to be more open to hiring someone who did something that was perhaps wrong, and who did so young and learned from it. I would still have a tough time with fabrication.

But at a previous job, I was involved with hiring an intern who noted to the person interviewing him that he had recently been involved in an ethics controversy as a reporter on his student paper. This wasn’t fabrication or anything like that, but something that was ethically questionable in terms of how a source was treated. I admired the fact that the potential intern raised the issue himself. This was long enough ago that everything wasn’t instantly “Googleable,” so he might have hoped we wouldn’t notice. And he seemed to have learned from the experience. We made clear the activity wasn’t something he could do on his internship, hired him, and he did well.

Wermers: As an editor, I honestly am shocked every time I hear about a reporter fabricating stories, or even details in stories. I understand not being able to get the details you need – even being lazy and not really working hard to get key details. And while not wanted at all, those at least are forgivable sins.

But to make up a story, to fabricate quotes and claim at first that you interviewed anyone – much less a celebrity such as Bob Dylan – is to me, unforgivable. It doesn’t matter that Jonah Lehrer was not a newspaper reporter. He was still purporting to write fact, not fiction. To me, it is certainly fair to put him in the same league as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Bottom line, they all did essentially the same thing.

What Are the Lessons to Be Learned?

McMillen: The journalistic crimes Lehrer committed are his own. But all of us—readers and editors—bear responsibility, too, for craving and cultivating such figures. Too many journalists now strive to be the smartest guy in the room instead of the best reporter; and we too often cheer them on.

Jaschik: When there is a scandal like the one over fabrication, editors are quick to say “I’d fire anyone who did (fill in the blanks)” or “I’d never hire anyone who had (fill in the blanks).” There may be a few areas where I’d say those things — fabrication, plagiarism. But I’d argue for keeping that list short, and considering a range of factors for conduct that doesn’t rise quite to the level of those transgressions.

Wermers: For example, if I pull material from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story into my own for the Statesboro Herald and do not attribute it, that is plagiarism. If I found tangible proof that a reporter plagiarized once, that reporter would be strictly disciplined (performance plan, probation) and if it happened again, that reporter would be gone. If I found proof that a reporter plagiarized multiple times, to me that is grounds for suspension without pay and, depending on the severity and number of times, immediate dismissal. And if I were to find that a reporter made up a story, I would terminate that person immediately, or at least as soon as I could. Finally, if I found that a job candidate had plagiarized or fabricated a story, I would not consider hiring that person.

To me, Lehrer needs to consider another line of work – maybe fiction writing. Harsh? Yes. But I just don’t see how someone can purport to be a fact-telling journalist – even one who writes for a magazine and offers some perspective or opinion – and be able to be trusted once that trust has been breached the way Lehrer – or Glass and Blair and many others before him – have done.

Mistakes are forgivable. Blatantly making up quotes or facts, or plagiarizing, are not.

Elsewhere, Reuters interviewed the reporter who pressed Lehrer to reveal his Dylan sources–Michael Moynihan–and Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute.

“I have never quite figured out why people do it and I find it endlessly fascinating, especially in the case of Jonah Lehrer, where the quotes were, so, kind of, insignificant. It was so unnecessary.”–Moynihan
“There are brilliant people who are capable of independent, excellent, ethical work who seem addicted to praise that comes from high achievement.” –Peter Clark

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.