Today, Jonah Lehrer gave the final address at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. For an hour, he spoke about his journalistic transgressions over the course of the past few years, which came to light over the summer.
What struck me the most wasn’t Lehrer’s robotic, characteristically arrogant speech, but one of the questions posed by a conference attendee. She stated flippantly that Lehrer’s plagiarism affected her less than a “typo on Wikipedia,” and didn’t understand why people expected public apology for something that didn’t specifically hurt them.
Alrighty then. Let’s talk about how Jonah Lehrer has hurt the journalism community. Come on, raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina George.
First of all, the public inherently trusts successful journalists, especially ones hired as staff writers for publications as reputable as The New Yorker. Should people be skeptical of everything they read? Yes! Please, be skeptical. Should readers have to wonder if every word written in a magazine they trust is a lie or a fabrication? Dear god, I hope not.
Lehrer was a public darling. I was never a fan of his writing (I found it over simplified and written with a cocky tone that rubbed me the wrong way) but I always appreciated how good he was at playing into what the mainstream wanted to read. To end up in a position like that and then abuse it is to tarnish public view of journalistic morality. Permanently.
Let’s get more specific, shall we? Lehrer wrote about science. Science journalists have another layer of public trust to navigate, because science has gotten a reputation for being confusing, boring, and elitist. It’s hard to get the public listening to you when you talk about science, and Lehrer had his finger on the pulse. So yes, I do feel that there’s something wrong with Lehrer ending up on a science journalism pedestal and then making shit up, pulling quotes out of thin air, and muddling facts so that they fit the narrative he knows will sell a book. Personally.
One more thing. Jonah Lehrer’s behavior was offensive to me. Specifically me. Me, and every other young, emerging science journalist. Do you know how unobtainable a staff position at The New Yorker is, especially for a science writer, in the age of dying print and literary cutbacks? I would cut out my own kidney if it got me a regular blog on Wired, let alone a longterm print contract. The respect, stability, and readership attached to that gig is the sort of thing I’m afraid to even dream of. Jonah Lehrer got it, and he abused it. He recycled old pieces. He copy and pasted from others’ work. He didn’t provide the content he was being paid to provide.
If he hadn’t been caught, that job would still be his–and that would be one less staff position for a young science writer willing to actually write about science.
Did tweeting live zingers about Lehrer while he spoke make me feel better about what he’d done? Not really. Especially now that I know how much money he made for his lackluster public apology.
Find a new playing field, Lehrer. The other kids don’t want you here anymore.