There was a lot of news this week. Some 2 billion Catholics discovered that the Bishop of Rome would retire, just like any other mortal sick of the daily grind. A lunatic with an assault rifle shot up San Bernadino County. And then there was the big news: Jonah Lehrer, journalism’s latest cautionary tale, took the stage at Knight Foundation to offer his mea culpa for committing a laundry list of journalistic sins, including plagiarism, self-plagiarism (are we sure that’s a thing?), outright fabrication, and—for some reason this one seems the grossest offense—transcribing quotes straight from a press release.
In reality, very few people outside the ever-shrinking fishbowl of media obsessives cared one whit about Lehrer and his public atonement. Over the past months I’ve noted, with some surprise, how few people outside of journalism had even heard of the scandal. So far as ink-stained villains go, Lehrer’s not exactly in competition with Rebekah Brooks. And indeed, Lehrer has had his defenders. Fellow New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell, told NYMag:
“[Lehrer] didn’t twist anyone’s meaning or libel anyone or manufacture some malicious fiction … Surely only the most hardhearted person wouldn’t want to give him a chance to make things right.”
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to agree with Gladwell. Because in fact, twisting meanings was exactly the nature of Lehrer’s graver sins: He cherry picked scientific evidence when it suited his narrative, and neglected those that didn’t. And he misquoted the scientists so that they seemed to be reinforcing his thesis. And he got a lot of money for doing so in a few of the most prestigious magazines in the business. Indignation: Duly piqued.
But if the transgressions weren’t enough to turn my stomach, the schadenfreude that followed in their wake was. Does anyone really think Lehrer was the only one cutting corners? We’ve all struggled to sate the appetite of the Daily Fucking Beast that is the 24/7 news cycle. (Full disclosure: I re-purposed some of my blog posts for my Crowdsourcing book, and some material made the reverse journey as well.) Oh, and about that note of glee in people’s reaction: Really? Oh. Joy. We’ve given another reason for readers to doubt us. Finally, Jonah was part of our tribe, pariah or not. He and I shared an editor at Wired, and another friend edited him at the New Yorker. I never begrudged him his success. I figured—wrongly, perhaps—that he’d earned it.
So I guess part of me wanted to be convinced yesterday. I wanted to hear a redemption song. The speech, though, was unsatisfying. As more than one Tweet pointed out, he used the very vernacular of the (now suspect) genre of Big Idea journalism to elucidate the reasoning behind his transgressions. As if he himself constituted a fascinating anecdote that could be folded into yet another lucrative speaking gig. Have I already used “Ewww” in this post?
But worse, by far, was discovering that he had accepted a $20,000 “honorarium” for the apology. Worse yet that the Knight Foundation, one of the consistently most interesting and valuable institutions left in our diminished industry, would offer it to him. I am a defender of speaker fees. (Not incidentally, I also collect them. I usually give around 10 speeches a year, though usually for sums less than what Lehrer was paid). They’re an effective way of transmitting ideas to a large audience, and great fun to boot. I stay on the straight-and-narrow by not tailoring my speeches to individual audiences, or writing articles about the companies that hire me to speak.
But there are times to take the fee, and times—a funeral, say, or just a charity event—when you don’t. This was, without question, Jonah—my friend who, by mere accident of fate, I never met—a time when you don’t. Jesus.
So I was heartened all around when I read this from one of the students at Northeastern University, where I teach journalism:
You’ve upset a great many people, and I don’t know if you could ever prove to all of them that you have changed and you’re ready to commit to what journalism really is. But here’s how you can prove that to me: Give the money away. Not only is it wrong for you of all people to accept money from the Knight Foundation, but it makes everything you said seem disingenuous. I could be sorry for a lot of things if it would put my firstborn through her first semester of college.
Sounds about right to me. #ProveItJonah