Professional Written Commentary is Fundamentally Broken

The news about Jonah Lehrer’s latest bits of journalistic malpractice– fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan, of all people– doesn’t come as a surprise to most, considering Lehrer’s recent history of self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism is, to my mind, a minor crime, one that’s perhaps inevitable in a digital age that expects writers (or content producers, in the horribly ugly vernacular of our media) to churn out words by the thousands. But that incident did get the antennae raised, which is likely why perpetually redfaced reporter  Michael Moynihan was chasing down quotes in Lehrer’s book in the first place. To many people, this must feel like an inevitable confirmation.

The question is why anyone would expect much else but scandal and failure in the realm of professional written commentary. I have been reading paid political and cultural commentary voraciously for a decade, and it seems to me to be a broken culture. Totally broken. The professional and social conditions of the profession are not in any sense oriented towards producing truthful, challenging, or moral outcomes. The large majority of the professional opinion writers I follow have a primary goal of advancing their personal brand, that horrific social-professional fusion that views getting page views and getting invitations to the latest DC grabass cocktail hour as merely two facets of the same effort. There are important exceptions, including people whose politics I reject entirely. (Take Conor Friedersdorf, who’s wrong about most everything but also very principled and very aware of these problems.) When writers change publications or think tanks all the time, and when friendly relations with editors and bigwigs matter vastly more for professional advancement than telling the truth, you get writing that’s written to demonstrate insider status and fealty to the proper authorities. Additionally, the medium is currently obsessed with cleverness, which has nothing to do with wisdom or honesty. Jonah Lehrer was inevitable.

What is the accountability, in paid commentary these days, for getting things wrong? What’s the penalty for failure? When someone like Jeffrey Goldberg gets a sizable raise following his efforts to get us into Iraq, it’s a very fair question, especially considering that so many members of our commentary writing corps constantly call for more accountability from others. Sure, the fact that Lehrer got called out for this is a good thing, and an act of self-policing. (Though if you think you’ve seen the last of Lehrer, you’re sorely mistaken.) But what is going to happen to fix the culture that produced him in the first place?

Lets’s take a minor example, a Slate post about the Olympics. Written by Josh Levin and Justin Peters, two of the smug, grasping tryhards that seem to multiply around the offices of that publication like mushrooms after a heavy rain, it’s a model of the kind of  writing that David Plotz seems to think is endlessly entertaining: shit-eating, self-aggrandizing cleverness, designed primarily to make the audience feel as if it is in on a joke, rather than to inform or challenge them. Inoffensive, as far as things go, and low stakes, given the subject. But when you pay people to write professionally about the real world, there is an expectation that they get the basic facts right. First, the story claimed that the French relay win yesterday was the best thing that happened to France since the birth of Jacques Brel, precisely the kind of oh-so-clever, aren’t we just so wonderfully worldly bit of throwaway self-fellatio that Slate simply cannot get enough of. Sadly, Brel was Belgian, as commenters pointed out, so the post was changed to say that it was the best moment in French history since the invention of the croissant. Sadder still, the croissant was invented in Austria, as other commenters have point out. I suppose that can still be a great moment for France, but how is that any different than the situation with Brel? Apparently, it’s different enough; that language remains.

There’s a more basic failing in the post, though. The piece, referring to the French sprinter who anchored the relay in Beijing that lost at the wall, Alain Bernard, claims that “Bernard… retired after failing to qualify for London—au revoir, Alain!” No. No, he didn’t. He’s a part of this London Olympic team. In fact, he participated in the very event that the post describes. Bernard swam in the preliminaries of the 4×100 relay, and as such earned a gold medal yesterday. That is a far cry from retiring after failure to qualify. Does that matter, when we’re talking about a sports story, and a minor figure within it? It does matter; getting the facts right matters, when you’re paid. And this isn’t hard journalism, it’s not a matter of looming deadlines or the fog of war. It’s absolutely basic research and due diligence. (Justin Peters is an editor at the august Columbia Journalism Review, which means he surely delivers lectures about the solemnity of the press’s fact-finding duties on the regular.) A little post, a little problem, but indicative of elementary failure in the most elementary of journalistic tasks: tell the truth.

By the way. If you really want proof that our digirrati badly need reform, just do a Twitter search for “Jonah Lehrer.” You will find two types of tweet: the self-promotional link whoring variety, and jokes. Dozens or hundreds of lame, “I’m an insider so I’ve got to get my clever quips out there!” jokes. Almost none of them are funny, even the meta-jokes of the “Insert Jonah Lehrer joke here” variety. Most of them are self-aggrandizing. And as a corpus they suggest the most cynical aspect of all of this: the paid-up members of our commentariat know their profession is bullshit. They respond to serious corruption with showy apathy and ironic distance, which is an indication that they believe that noting better should be pursued. I find it deeply depressing.

Guys: your profession is broken. It’s not the time to make more lame jokes. There are more important things in life than making some guy who writes for Vice softly chuckle or getting a retweet from some J-school student. Direct your energy into a movement to fix your dysfunctional culture. Actual self-reflection is necessary here, the sincere variety, not the ironic or showy kind. Accept the depth of the problem and resolve to work on it. Clean your house.






43 replies
  1. 1
    PatrickG says:

    A slight tangent, but one thing in this whole mess I was pleased to see was that Lehrer actually issued a real apology:

    The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.

    Sorry for the potential OT’ing, but it sort of took me aback to see someone just say ‘Sorry, I lied, I take responsibility, and I’m resigning’. How often does that actually happen these days?

  2. 2
    dedc79 says:

    I welcome any opportunity to discuss the musical legacy of Jacques Brel

  3. 3
    jl says:

    Real World? What is that?

    Is that a reality show? Cole watch?

    I just moved and the new landlord, who seems extra nice and generous, gimme a new TV for the apartment. And it works!

    Now I can watch every night.

    What channel is Real World on?

  4. 4
    Linda Featheringill says:

    It seems to me that the real question is why are people who are smart enough to know about Brel and croissants still reading Slate?

  5. 5
    ChrisNYC says:

    “I understand the gravity of my position” is such a weird sentence. His (former) position at the magazine? No, can’t be that. His ‘position’ as a maker-upper? Is that a position, even? Position like stance? Just so weird when someone who writes writes something like that in something they’ve presumably written carefully.

  6. 6
    Wazmo says:

    “Professional Commentary” are like anal spinchters, regardless of the delivery channel-all they do is shit the bed.

  7. 7
    c u n d gulag says:

    I’d venture to say that 99.9% of the Conservative punTWITS in this country, and about 95% of their “centrist” brothers and sisters, have been wrong on everything for the past 30+ years.

    And yet, there IS NO ACCOUNTABILITY!

    To fire them all from TV, Op-ed pages, radio, and magazines would elicit a chorus of “Liberal Bias!” – with the usual wailing, gnashing of teeth, and tearing at the hair and clothing, at the unfairness of it all!

    And we can’t have that now can we?

    After all, Paul Krugman was for NAFTA, and may have been wrong on something else, too!

    So why should these people, who everyone knows and likes, because they all go to the same cocktail parties, and their kids play soccer together, have to suffer?

    The peasants have their blogs to bitch about things.
    As far as the news, ‘let them eat fake.’

  8. 8
    c u n d gulag says:

    I’d venture to say that 99.9% of the Conservative punTWITS in this country, and about 95% of their “centrist” brothers and sisters, have been wrong on everything for the past 30+ years.

    And yet, there IS NO ACCOUNTABILITY!

    To fire them all from TV, Op-ed pages, radio, and magazines would elicit a chorus of “Liberal Bias!” – with the usual wailing, gnashing of teeth, and tearing at the hair and clothing, at the unfairness of it all!

    And we can’t have that now can we?

    After all, Paul Krugman was for NAFTA, and may have been wrong on something else, too!

    So why should these people, who everyone knows and likes, because they all go to the same cocktail parties, and their kids play soccer together, have to suffer?

    The peasants have their blogs to bitch about things.
    As far as the news, ‘let them eat fake.’

  9. 9
    Wazmo says:

    Seems Jonah Lehere’s took a page out of a distantly related Tom Lehrer song.

  10. 10
    Rafer Janders says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    Boredom is a harsh mistress. It’s not like they’re refreshing posts here every ten minutes….

  11. 11
    ericblair says:

    Additionally, the medium is currently obsessed with cleverness, which has nothing to do with wisdom or honesty.

    It’s a royal court, dude, French style. There was a pretty good movie called Ridicule, where a French lord had to go to court and play all the stupid petty meaningless games to get his way to help his people. It’s depressingly relevant.

  12. 12
    schrodinger's cat says:

    Who is Jonah Lehrer and why should I care?

  13. 13
    Culture of Truth says:

    shit-eating, self-aggrandizing cleverness, designed primarily to make the audience feel as if it is in on a joke, rather than to inform or challenge them

    Well that’s Slate for you.

  14. 14
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Guys: your profession is broken.

    I wanna hear from both sides before making a determination. Get me Mitch Albom on the phone.

  15. 15
    Zifnab says:

    @PatrickG:

    How often does that actually happen these days?

    Well, that’s kinda the joke isn’t it? The people who apologize, take credit for their mistakes, and resign typically don’t do it more than once. The people who bluster and stick up their noses and politely explain about how gastritis broke their calculators just keep on trucking.

    This notion that people will self-police is just absurd. Anyone with the integrity to show himself the door is someone you should probably want to keep in your office. Because once all the proud and noble journalists have fallen on their swords, all that’s left to read is David Broder.

  16. 16
    andrewsomething says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Who is Jonah Lehrer and why should I care?

    A now former writer for the New Yorker. It’s up to you whether you care or not, but Freddie is making the argument that you should, not because he is a now former writer for the New Yorker, but because his actions and are indicative of the culture of unaccountability in the world of written commentary. That’s kind of the point of the post…

    So did Freddie not make his point or did you just not bother to read?

  17. 17
    Culture of Truth says:

    “Bernard… retired after failing to qualify for London”

    “Bernard swam in the preliminaries of the 4×100 relay, and as such earned a gold medal yesterday”

    picky, picky…

  18. 18
    cinesimon says:

    I just wanted to point people to Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay with regards to Obama’s moderate conservatism.
    There are of course many, many reasons to dislike much of Sully’s views and commentary – especially when it comes to the economy and liberals(when railing against we liberals, he can sound like Billo – especially when he chooses the most demented letter to represent his liberal readership), but it’s essays like this that show he does deserve his place, and we should be grateful to have him cheering on Obama. Hopefully he can influence some of those traditional conservatives who have both money and political power to break ranks and support Obama.

    Link:
    http://andrewsullivan.thedaily.....acons.html

  19. 19
    YoohooCthulhu says:

    I don’t see how this wouldn’t have been expected from Lehrer. Knowing legitimate researchers and clinicians in the neuroscience/neurology field (many of whom write but are dramatically less successful than Lehrer)–for someone with so few credentials and legitimate expertise, his career rise has been extremely rapid. I think in that sort of situation the pressure to do mildly dishonest things is very high–after all, if you’ve been THIS successful based off of mildly informed speculation and blather–what’s the difference in stretching the truth a little?

    It’s what makes me so suspicious of people like Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias. I mean, those two do have well-cultivated policy interests and are at least very well read…but it’s largely the same issue as Lehrer. When you don’t put in the time and pain to become a legitimate expert on anything and just reach ever more career success on cleverness alone…

  20. 20
    Rafer Janders says:

    @cinesimon:

    Yes, but…it continues to fall prey to his “No True Scotsman” fallacy concerning conservatism. That is, I am a conservative, I am good, conservatism is good, therefore anything which I regard as good I will define as being conservative.

  21. 21
    Water balloon says:

    @YoohooCthulhu: I would say that criticism applies much more to Yglesias than Klein, who at least tends to stick to topics that he knows something about.

  22. 22
    tam says:

    @YoohooCthulhu:

    It’s what makes me so suspicious of people like Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias.

    Didn’t those two rise so rapidly in large part because they were liberals who supported the Iraq invasion?

  23. 23
    YoohooCthulhu says:

    @tam:

    I’m pretty sure their support was during their college years and predated employment by quite a bit. By the time those guys were on the job market, it was already out of vogue to be a pro-war Democrat.

  24. 24
    tam says:

    @YoohooCthulhu: While they were in college they wrote for a blog called TAPPED I think? It was actually pretty big. I remember because they were a few years older than I am. And yes, since it’s that work that got them staff positions at The American Prospect, I do think it’s relevant.

  25. 25
    TK-421 says:

    I know this is not the point of the post, but…if I wanted analysis on the Olympics, or more specifically Olympic swimming, there are many outlets I would not consult, Slate being one of the more obvious ones to avoid. Yes, I nitpick Rowdy Gaines’s analysis, but come on- who the hell are Josh Levin and Justin Peters, and what the hell do they know about swimming?

    Their post and their egregious errors answer those questions quite nicely, I think.

  26. 26
    cinesimon says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    He’s very open and self aware about the issue you seem to think he treats in such a black and white way.
    Because we disagree on what it means to be ‘conservative’, his essay is worthless? Silly. Oh and you think HE refined conservatism?
    Bizarre.
    It’s a fact that America’s right wing actively redefined Conservatism in the 1960s.
    Regardless, that’s a moot point. Many people agree with him, most of them moderate(traditional, as defined quite well by Sully) conservatives.
    The audience for that essay is not us, it’s moderate conservatives. Of which there are a lot, and who despise the idea of voting tea party but have been suckered into believing that Obama has let them down. Sully very effectively pushes back against such nonsense – and I think we should be stoked that he, despite our having huge differences in ideology, is rooting for the same guy we are and is making a very solid case to the traditional conservative community. Not the faux-libertarian tea party & southern conservatives(who’ve never really been conservative – but right wing), but the conservatives of the northern states, more akin to Britain’s Tories than American conservatives.
    One reason I love the Democratic Party is that we have many ideologies – conservative to liberal and everything in between. Also, of course, a reason to hate the party! But Sully is very effective at talking to the conservative wing of the Dems, and they need persuading right now.

  27. 27
    Barbara says:

    Everyone said “Get on Twitter!” so I got on Twitter and followed a group of political writers. What a disappointment. Grown men, for the most part (sadly), behaving like the mean girls at the cool table. Short on relevant content, but enough snark to qualify most of them for a staff position with Sarah Palin.

    On days when there’s a sporting event, there’s a number of tweets dealing with play by play commentary in order to engage in male bond I’m guessing. To make matters worse, they tweet in sports cliches.

    Then there’s the jabber about which musical artist is the best in assorted categories. I’m assuming they do this to affirm their “I look like a pasty, pudgy, middle age guy, but I’m really hip” bona fides.

    And the misleading, stealth, self-promoting links which you think might be something new or interesting but just leads back to their column in order to jack up their view count.

    It’s very sad when political writers are indistinguishable from blow hard Uncles at the Thanksgiving table.

  28. 28
    SFAW says:

    Brel? Croissants? Who cares?

    What I really want them to write about is how Jordyn WBieber’s failure to qualify for Teh All-Around Finals is the worst disaster since the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor. I mean, as long as they’re on a roll.

  29. 29
    Upper West says:

    All I can say is,

    In the immortal words of JFK, Ich bin ein croissant!

  30. 30
    Corey says:

    You know Freddie, I’m about as sick of the cleverer-than-thou, in-group snark of the blogosphere as you are. But it’s not like you’re even a bit different. Fundamentally, the “neoliberal sellout” “progressive striver” shit you trot out is about telling people just how much better and purer you are than the professional bloggers you obsess over.

    The fact that you can’t recognize your own tendencies towards the same nonsense makes you pretty unreliable as a critic of that group.

  31. 31
    chrismealy says:

    Lehrer was linking to the usual scientific racists a while ago. I’m happy to see him go down.

  32. 32
  33. 33
    Rafer Janders says:

    a href=”#comment-3519988″>cinesimon:

    He’s very open and self aware about the issue you seem to think he treats in such a black and white way.

    Open, yes, Self-aware? I think not. Self-aware people don’t make the same mistake over and over again.

    Because we disagree on what it means to be ‘conservative’, his essay is worthless? Silly.

    Please point to where I said in my post that his essay was worthless. I think my harshest language of criticism was “yes, but…”

    Oh and you think HE refined conservatism?

    Um, no. Again, please point to where I said that, because that’s nowhere in what I wrote. I mean that he constantly redefines things that he likes as “conservative things”, not that he redefines the meaning of conservatism. Objects, positions, political stances, etc. that Sullivan takes a liking to become defined in his own mind as conservative, because in his own mind he likes them, he’s a conservative, therefore these things are conservative. Take marriage equality – it’s a position largely associated with and advocated by the liberals in this country, and rejected by conservatives. And yet to Sullivan, marriage equality is now the “conservative” position.

    It’s as if he’s a Red Sox fan and he’s watching a Red Sox / Yankees game. The Yankees win, 5-4, and Sullivan then decides that the Yankees were actually Red Sox all along in their hearts, that supporting the Yankees is the Red Sox thing to do, and so the 5-4 counts as a victory for Boston.

  34. 34
    Rafer Janders says:

    @cinesimon:

    Many people agree with him, most of them moderate(traditional, as defined quite well by Sully) conservatives.
    The audience for that essay is not us, it’s moderate conservatives. Of which there are a lot, and who despise the idea of voting tea party but have been suckered into believing that Obama has let them down. Sully very effectively pushes back against such nonsense – and I think we should be stoked that he, despite our having huge differences in ideology, is rooting for the same guy we are and is making a very solid case to the traditional conservative community. Not the faux-libertarian tea party & southern conservatives(who’ve never really been conservative – but right wing), but the conservatives of the northern states, more akin to Britain’s Tories than American conservatives.

    I get this point. It’s well stated. I’m disagreeing with it at the moment, but it’s something to think about.

  35. 35
    MCA1 says:

    @TK-421: Well, clearly they know nothing about swimming in any real sense, and pick through the internet for little nuggets and names to throw into their snark. But that’s the point of it – arcana and in-jokes and meta-humor. They’re targetting not people who actually follow swimming or want real analysis or insights, but rather people who almost give a crap about Olympic swimming and want to seem culturally literate, but are too hip to admit it, so they’ll only read about it if there’s sufficient flippancy within to allow them to laugh it off and be reminded of their indifferent superiority at such a stupid thing as the Olympic Games. It’s the journalistic response to the deep internalization of irony in everyone born between 1967 and 1985 in this country.

  36. 36
    sneezy says:

    when friendly relations with editors and bigwigs matter vastly more for professional advancement than telling the truth, you get…

    Megan McArdle.

  37. 37
    MCA1 says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Take marriage equality – it’s a position largely associated with and advocated by the liberals in this country, and rejected by conservatives. And yet to Sullivan, marriage equality is now the “conservative” position.

    This is a pretty good point. I suspect that Sullivan might distinguish between the conservative/radical and the Left/Right spectrums here to support himself, and argue that the same policy position can be radical at one time and eventually become the conservative position. Of course, the opposite could also be true but that likely would not concern him.

    It would be self-serving and retrospectively rounding a square peg, but he’d probably say that, while always a position associated with the Left in the U.S. (and indeed, probably the world at large), until there was sufficient public support for same sex marriage built up through years of social effort, there was enough deep concern and outright anger amongst a sufficient percentage of the population that to enact legislation addressing same sex marriage was a radical position, in that it could have troubling or destabilizing social effect. Whether Sullivan would admit to having, until recently, held a self-described non-Burkean radical position on that particular policy issue out of personal preference, would be an interesting discussion.

    The troubling part of that position is that it tends toward legitimizing policies only as long as a sufficient majority of the population is comfortable with and endorses them, which has tyranny of the majority problems.

  38. 38
    kc says:

    @ChrisNYC:

    Maybe it means “I realize that I have been busted.”

  39. 39
    taylormattd says:

    This is true of all members of the media: television, print – all of them.

    The contrarian hipster fucks at Slate may be the most annoying. But it isn’t simply some phenomenon of the “digerati”.

  40. 40

    […] deBoer says it was inevitable: I have been reading paid political and cultural commentary voraciously for a decade, and it seems […]

  41. 41
    Bob2 says:

    This kind of thing is always fun because you can play the game of Evil or Stupid (or both) with pundits.

    Friedersdorf definitely falls under stupid.

    Lehrer now under stupid.

  42. 42
    Larkspur says:

    @ChrisNYC:

    “I understand the gravity of my position” is such a weird sentence….

    I think it works. It seems clear to me that he’s saying “I know that I didn’t just lose my job, but that I blew the chance of a lifetime and will probably never be employable in this field again. My position is ‘in free-fall’, and as David Byrne really probably said once, ‘Gravity gets you down'”. Or he could just reframe it as a gaffe, which is a pratfall rather than a free-fall, and then the gravitational effects are bumps and bruises instead of splat. Right now, he doesn’t seem to be thinking about reframing anything.

  43. 43

    […] the fame thing, Freddie deBoe wrote this re: Lehrer and nailed it:  I have been reading paid political and cultural commentary […]

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