The Seeds of Lazy Journalism

Discovery should be a process, not simply an end goal.

Jonah Lehrer was found to be repurposing his own material and perhaps stealing the material of others. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan offers these thoughts:

One appropriate response to this incident is to say, "This raises some very interesting philosophical questions about whether 'self-plagiarism' is really even possible. Can we steal from ourselves?" But that response is only appropriate after you've already said, "Of course, the fucking New Yorker, of all places, does not hire a writer--especially not a writer whose whole schtick is writing about 'the mind' and other smart-guy topics--so that they can republish his warmed-over old material that's already run in other places." The fact that Lehrer has apparently done this before is bad; once is an oversight, but several times is a pattern. A pattern of self-plagiarism can only mean A) a wanton disregard for the rules, or B) outright stupidity. I don't think Jonah Lehrer is stupid. (Though he really should stop writing about sports.)

More from Josh Levin:

For Lehrer, whose work traffics in insights into creativity, ingenuity, and how we think, these sorts of well-crafted yarns are particularly important. When he gives an interview, Lehrer sells his book and himself. He crafts his delivery to make us believe that he is a source of wisdom--that these are not just insights, but his insights...

Most of us journalists have one great idea every few months, maybe two if we drink industrial levels of caffeine. For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there's no liquid left and pray you've bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.

Levin's comparison with Gladwell is interesting. Gladwell takes a lot of heat, but one thing I always enjoy about his best stuff--say comparing football and dog-fighting or looking at how native African-Americans relate to African-Americans from the Caribbean or Africa--is a sense of exploration. I haven't read Gladwell's books, so maybe I'm off on this. But in his journalism I'm often amazed by how his sheer curiosity pushes the story. I don't always agree. I'm not sure that football is like dog-fighting. But I feel the sincere push, an actual desire to know more--as opposed to simply telling people more--emanating from his work.

I think that's important to understanding plagiarism or the warming-over of old stories. Journalism is hard, and a writer focused only on the end-product--on the reveal, on the key insight--is going to struggle. There should be some excitement about the hunt, about having your assumptions overturned and blown up. There should be some love for the process. The baker can't simply live for the look of amazement on the faces of those who behold his latest creation. There has to be some joy in actually baking the cake.

Of course the industry for "ideas" and and new insight is large. If that's your focus, if that becomes why you do it, if discovery as a destination overwhelms discovery as process, I could easily see how you slide into laziness when confronted with the hard work of process.