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Say It To My Face, Jonah Lehrer

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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.

He was paid $20,000 for his time. 

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.

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

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. 

About Rachel

Rachel Feltman is a 20 year old Simon's Rock alum and a grad student at NYU SHERP. She loves writing about science, and would one day like to be paid to do so. Please.

17 responses »

  1. well done. you’ve cut precisely to the proverbial jugular of the issue. It’s not about being indignant or catching a cheater. It’s about public trust: it’s delicate, near-impossible to retrieve and utterly vital for socially responsible news reporting.

  2. “Typo on Wikapedia?” I’m sorry, please never make a typo in a sentence about typos. It’s like a space-time rift of facepalming.

  3. Pingback: Links 2/13/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  4. RIght on, Rachel. Don’t cut out your kidney though; you can get those paid gigs as you are.

  5. An interesting read, even though I have no idea who Lehrer is. I studied Journalism in England (I are English, geeza, after all) and, let me tell you, there’s no journalism work here. Certainly not paid. Best of luck, though, and keep at your writing. Maybe write a book, eh? Self publish and that. Anything for publicity. I once ate a jar of marmite in 10 seconds to try and impress my student peers. Didn’t work. Dang!

  6. Thanks for blogging about Jonah Lehrer! He should be so ashamed of himself! Looking forward to seeing more from you.

  7. Your words about how hard it is to get a job with the New Yorker made me think that he got arrogant and lost appreciation for what he had. A lot of people lose sight of their ethics when they get cocky. What a shame and it does undermine the trustworthiness of the news. It’s like my belief about sports now. Lance Armstrong was the last straw for me. When someone starts breaking records anymore my thought is now what is he taking? It’s a shame.

  8. Half of our political system is living within its own quasi-reality, picking and choosing facts. Journalistic integrity matters more than ever.

  9. Great piece. I’m not a journalist, but I admire and try to uphold scientific method. So:

    “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.”

    … not just Personally; that should be an affront to every scientist, or just anyone partial to the facts.

  10. Lehrer pisses everyone off, not just science journos.

    I’ve been a journalist since 1978 and am totally fed up with the BS of Lehrer and his ilk. They get fancy jobs with big paychecks — available to very few — then carelessly throw them away with crappy behavior and zero ethical standards. But the practice will continue as long as the editors who hire them, and pay them $$$$, remain dazzled by their credentials and charm. Someone is choosing to hire them in the first place…

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  12. You are awesome! even though I have not heard of Jonah Lehrer. I really felt the closeness between you and Jonah( whether you love or hate him) . It is good to know that a lot of them play into what works not only mainstream. I love this quote from you “always appreciated how good he was at playing into what the mainstream wanted to read.” I hope to read more from you. One can feel your energy your passion and most importantly you are freshly pressed. We can also talk about science too.

  13. Being “infamous” in America also often pays off. Many former journalists that were caught doing what Lehrer did usually go on to write a book about it followed by more books and lucrative publishing contracts.

    By becoming infamous, they are now a better known public figure. Not everyone in America and/or the world values honesty and integrity. Instead, there are many people who make the Lehrers of the world their personal heroes and role models.

    For example, this is the first time I’ve heard of Lehrer. Now, because of his plagiarism and fabricated quotes, I know who he is but I’m sure I will never buy or read one of his former or future books.

    Lehrer may never get a job in the media again but a traditional publisher will still publish his books if there is an audience for them. Now, Lehrer gets to stay home and get paid to write. A dream job with no boss.

    America even has a powerful conservative political group known as neoconservatives that believe it is okay to lie and they call those lies “noble”. When G. W. Bush was president, neoconservatives had a lot of influence in the White House.

    What does this say about our culture?


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