Wick Communications

To be without a home

In Ethics on August 3, 2012 at 7:09 am

Courtesy The Boston Globe

Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace should give us all pause. He’s been compared to disgraced literary liars Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and I suppose that’s fair. But Lehrer’s transgressions feel just a bit different to me – no more forgivable, mind you – just different. And I think it’s time for us all to rethink the way we handle talented, young journalists.

Most of the other disgraced journalists were just that – journalists. Lehrer was a shooting star. He was a Rhodes Scholar who had earned a degree in neuroscience. (Though I should add that I haven’t checked any of that out. He could well be lying about more than we know.) He remains a 30-year-old author who has appeared on Radiolab and contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and just about every other large, respected news outlet in the country. He wasn’t a born liar, at least I don’t think so.

In case you missed it, Lehrer was found to be making up Bob Dylan quotes to fit his creativity thesis for his wildly successful book, “Imagine.” Putting words into the mouth of a living cultural icon is an audacious thing to do. He lost his job with the New Yorker magazine as a result and his credibility is shattered.

A lot has already been written about Lehrer’s career meltdown, some of it very good. I won’t restate Craig Silverman’s on-the-mark piece on the Poynter website, but I think all of our editors should read those warning signs and give them a good hard think. (Pay particular attention to Silverman’s warning about writers who return to the office with “the perfect anecdote, the perfect quote, the perfect stat or study.” As you know, we don’t live in a perfect world.) …

I think we owe it to our best and brightest – and in many ways, I think Lehrer represented that – to coach them. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really bright young journalistic super-novas. And I’m sure that too often I’ve expected too much. For me, Lehrer’s story is a reminder that, as Dylan supposedly said, “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” As editors, we can’t just give freedom. We have to teach responsibility.

Clay

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