Monday, July 30, 2012

Lies: Jonah Lehrer

When I first read him I assumed he was in his forties or fifties, mid-career for sure to judge by his wit and assurance. But he was spry, too, tipping science studies on their sides to dig up some fascinating perspectives. His insight and humor captivated me. So much, in fact, that some of his views, for a while at least, put a piece of bedrock under my developing PhD dissertation on mental health and genetics.

I was surprised, then, to find out he was no older than me. I admit to googling him copiously, frequently visiting his blog, even looking up his wedding photographs and wondering if all the attractive wunderkind science writers like him were already claimed. I admired his courtly replies to scientists disagreeing with some of the points he made in his latest book, "Imagine," and, though I haven't yet read "Imagine," I admired his previous books.

Jonah Lehrer. From

Now he's hit the headlines again. This time not writing news, but for "imagining" it. Already accused of recycling his own work without acknowledging it, Lehrer is now being called out for fabricating quotations.
He has apologized in public and has resigned from The New Yorker. That's a good start. But I'm afraid I won't be reading him in his fifties, and won't want to after these shoddy, ignoble mistakes. I'm not going to beat the drum about journalistic integrity -- I think we've witnessed enough journalism scandals recently and are starting to run out of answers about why some top-flight journalists lie. We might even be wondering if all journalists and reporters fabricate.

I'm sure they don't. But I know it happens. I even remember a junior editor at the Iowa State Daily, admittedly a student newspaper, attempt to massage one of the quotes I reported in a story. It wasn't a particularly important quote or a riveting story, but I adamantly refused to let her make the alteration, and I was frightened that if I hadn't been standing in the newsroom, that mis-quotation would have gone to press.

We journalists don't have a lot going for us sometimes: meager salaries, hours of often tedious work, and public suspicion (that seems quite warranted, given these lapses.) I'd argue that many of us write because the world fascinates us though, and the access we get to adventure and information as we write is well worth all the toil and penny-pinching. We have our words and our hard-earned knowledge, and we stand by those things (not having much else to cling to!)

The thing is, Lehrer didn't have to pinch pennies. And even if he did, lack of funds, or thirst for notoriety, or the sheer pressure of beating a ticking assignment clock is no excuse for any kind of fabrication. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen, and crop up fairly often when journalists attempt to synthesize and summarize complex scientific papers (which themselves, sadly, sometimes fabricate findings.)

Lehrer's actions were deliberate lies though, not mere misunderstandings. I'm sure he understands he hurt himself, his readers, his sources, his publishers, and the overall professional of journalism. 
I know it's popular to be cynical, to say well, everyone lies, to say his mistake wasn't the lie but being so sloppy he got caught, or to shrug and say it doesn't really matter.

But it matters to me that I held him up as an example of elegant, powerful reporting, which I won't be doing any longer. It matters that I strive for precision, clarity, and honesty, and I wanted to be like him, and now I don't. It matters that I wanted to be one of his audience members, but that now he's joined the ranks of those like Greg Mortenson, who probably wanted to do good, and ended up fudging badly. I doubt we can currently know how much Lehrer has let slide, but he's no longer my hero.

Now he's just another human like any one of us who slaps a few lies together when it's convenient. Most of us do it.  I would argue that even casual lies can have damaging impacts though. And Lehrer's lies were calculated rather than casual, committed in a professional setting where I know I may be naive to expect accuracy, but where I still want it. He didn't have to do it; he was in fact defying the conduct code of his profession, letting his bread-and-butter land dirt-side-down.

Lehrer had a chance to keep his integrity, keep our ears, and keep his reporting solid. I'm afraid, despite whatever good work he has done, that he's shattered all that. And it hurts.

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