How Common Are Jonah Lehrers?

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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, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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