Doing penance

Word count: 440 words

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today, I discuss John Lehrer’s apology for plagiarism.

I was a longtime fan of Jonah Lehrer. I loved his 2009 book How We Decide, which I found both insightful and extraordinarily well written. I also sat in the sixth row for  a speech he gave at the 2011 world conference for the International Association of Business Communicators. He was a riveting speaker.

When I learned in 2012 that his book, Imagine, had been withdrawn from the market by its publisher after it became known that Lehrer had fabricated some of the quotations, I was horrified. I was even more shocked when he resigned from his staff position at The New Yorker.

For some time I’ve thought that he needed the help of a “crisis manager” — someone who could help rehabilitate his image. I don’t know whether he actually hired someone, but last week he started on the rehab trail with a speech at the Knight Foundation seminar. You can read the full text of his speech here.

I read it and I thought it displayed a fair amount of apology, although I felt is showed a remarkable lack of awareness of how real-life journalism works. I was also troubled that neither Lehrer nor the Knight Foundation was upfront that they’d paid him $20,000 for his speech. (Talk about an oversight!)

For me, however, the problem was not so much the speech. The fundamental issue is that Lehrer has never worked as an ordinary journalist. He’s paid no dues. He’s never worked at midnight. Never had a grumpy desker scream at him over his spelling or failure to fact-check. With a degree in Neuroscience from Columbia University (2003)  followed by a trip to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer was able to vaunt over the pesky little internships and beginning journalism jobs and head straight for Scientific American Mind, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

He’s a good writer, perhaps even a great writer. He’s also a demonstrably smart guy. But when he says that, in future, he understands the need to fact check, no one wants to believe him. This is because he’s never shown any evidence of working like a “regular” person. He had too many advantages before and now no one wants to cut him any slack.

My view? He will need to become a ghost writer until he has done enough “penance” so that the public and the journalistic community will forgive him. And if he did hire a crisis manager, he should fire that person. They misjudged this situation and badly mishandled it.

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