How Common Are Jonah Lehrers?

In response to my previous post about the Jonah Lehrer affair, a reader emailed: "I don't think people expect writers or journalists to take their jobs seriously anymore. The standards have just degraded that much."

Au contraire! Speaking as someone who has practiced journalism long enough to have witnessed the alleged decline, I'd say standards for accuracy and honesty are higher than they used to be. It isn't that journalists are of better character now than before; it's just that, as various people have noted over the past 24 hours, journalists now live in a transparent world, where fact-checking is crowd sourced and happens in real time. That can keep you on your toes.

It's amazing, looking back, how well-insulated journalists used to be from correction. Consider this true (I swear!) story from my days as a pre-internet journalist:

I had written a very long piece for a magazine you've heard of, and one of the people who had come off unfavorably in it wrote a long letter complaining about various aspects of the article. In my reply--which was to be run in the next issue along with his letter--I managed to parry all of his points except one; he had indeed caught me in a (very minor, IMHO) factual error, and I admitted as much. When I opened the next issue of the magazine I found that my admission of error had been deleted--as had the part of his letter where he noted the error! I was surprised though not gravely disappointed.

Today the guy who wrote the letter--he was an academic pretty well known in his field--could take to the internet and embarrass the magazine for concealing my mistake. But in those days no such recourse existed. Once you wrote a magazine or newspaper complaining about factual error (or fabrication, or whatever), it was up to the periodical whether, and in what form, the letter would appear. And even if it appeared in full, writers often got to reply, which in that technological milieu meant getting the last word.

I'm not saying this buffer from scrutiny created a generation of dishonest journalists. I think out-and-out fabrication has always been very rare. But lazy corner-cutting was easier to get away with, and a fair amount of it happened.

Old school journalists sometimes complain that these days anybody can start a blog and declare herself a journalist without going through the school of hard knocks--no gruff city editor playing drill sergeant, etc. And it's true that some journalistic virtues have become rarer. But I don't think accuracy and honesty are among them. It's apt that Jonah Lehrer's fabrications happened in a very old and non-interactive medium--a book, which, even when in electronic form, has no comment section.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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