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.