On Monday, following the news that journalist Michael Moynihan had caught Jonah Lehrer making up quotes Lehrer attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine, I wrote a piece about how it seems that such crimes of journalism are lesser than they used to be, and that the transgressors are busted sooner. Jayson Blair was at the New York Times for four years; Lehrer was with the New Yorker for two months.
I attributed this to the speed and scope at which things happen on the Internet, as well as to the capacity to more easily check things (plug some suspect quotes into Google search and you'll see right away what pops up, for instance) online. Plus, there exists a team of journalists and bloggers who more doggedly go after people who "cheat," not only because they can but because that's a story in itself. I wonder, though, if the rapidity with which Lehrer's mistakes were initially noted, a confession was extracted, and his resignation from the New Yorker announced—it took about a month from start to finish, with the Bob Dylan fabrication being the last straw, after which his resignation and the news stories promptly followed—is indicative of a corresponding speed of forgiveness. Or if, more simply, in the news cycles of the era in which we currently live, for every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction, as quickly as possible.
Today came the news that Lehrer would no longer be talking to college kids about ethics, as had been planned prior to Moynihan's story. Forbes' Jeff Bercovici writes that Lehrer had been scheduled to address Earlham College students on the August 22 with a speech called “How We Decide: The New Science of Decisionmaking." The school's Public Affairs Officer Mark Blackmon said, “We felt that, given everything that is transpiring, this is not exactly something we would move forward with, given the fact that this fund is to fund lectures in ethics." (The school will also get any fees back.) Lehrer has lost other engagements, too, as organizations cope with the news from Monday. This is all punishment that he will feel in his pocket, as Bercovici writes, "For many of these talks, sources estimate he receives fees in the neighborhood of $20,000." Ouch.
Maybe that, along with the sometimes scathing criticisms and the loss of his job, is enough to make people actually feel bad for Lehrer? Paul Tullis, who worked with the author at Seed, mounted a defense for him today in the Observer, writing that Lehrer "is one of the most talented, hard-working, meticulous, and careful writers I’ve edited (a group that includes Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Godwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Evan Ratliff, Bryan Walsh, Jake Silverstein, and Tom Clynes)." He continues, "And having first-hand experience of the fact-checking departments at The New Yorker and Wired, the magazines for which Lehrer most recently wrote, I doubt very much that his manufacturing or misuse of quotes extends much to his magazine writing." (Of course, there were transgressions at the New Yorker, too, though they fell in that weird category of "self-plagiarism.")
I don't doubt that Tullis means what he says, but is it too soon to start working the forgiveness story, I wonder? This all just happened; the follow ups are still happening; I'd be willing to bet that some savvy journalist or a few are working their way though all of Lehrer's writing in search of additional missteps. But Tullis's piece, while ostensibly charitable and kind, is also working the Internet in its own way: It's another angle on a story that's continuing to attract interest, and Tullis gets to be the first to the table in defending an unpopular view. In the opinion of the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, it's an attempt "to fill a void in the ideas marketplace, to do that which hadn’t yet been dared" (Wemple isn't buying Tullis' "unfair double standard" argument). But that's a strategic Internet move, actually, and can be its own success story. Tullis' point, too, that the misdeeds may actually not be as bad as the cover-up, is a solid one. But maybe it would have been better, say, a week from now. The cycles of anger and grief and forgiveness are moving fast, faster than ever. And it's true, at some point soon, probably sooner than we think, this news will be a faded memory, then we'll all be emailing Lehrer to get a quote on the next possible fabricator or plagiarist.
My Atlantic colleague Robert Wright wrote earlier this week that while we can all relate to a feeling of resentment about a writer in our midst who, as Moynihan put it, "cut corners," we're probably not going to hold this against Lehrer for too terribly long. Wright asks, "Remember the Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarism scandal? Probably not, but you may well remember a subsequent bestseller by Goodwin, and the warm welcome she got on PBS and NPR during her book tour. For a country considered puritanical, America is actually a pretty forgiving place." And, it's true, Lehrer's crimes, or those we know of at this point, are hardly Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair-level. He's probably going to write and sell books and speak in public again.
But at the moment: He's still got his website completely intact; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has barely had time to start getting the offending books off the shelves; we're still rather let down and also a little bit angry. Let us have this moment of warning for future journalists who might be tempted to make things up just a little bit longer, shall we? One thing we do have a lot of is time in which we can forget.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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