Jonah Lehrer’s scandal sparks debate on how journalists should deal with plagiarizers

Posted on February 20, 2013 in Perspectives
By Noah Hurowitz

“Purposeful plagiarism is one of the cardinal sins of journalism from which reporters can never recover their credibility,” wrote Al Hunt, then the Wall Street Journal D.C. bureau chief, in a 1991 editorial. “There is no statute of limitations on that judgement.”

The issue of how to deal with plagiarizers seems to be a perennial one.

Jonah Lehrer — and the sordid scandal that follows him — reared his ugly head again this week when word got out he was being paid $20,000 by the Knight Foundation — the “journalistic excellence in the digital age” folks — to speak at a journalism conference in Florida.

Lehrer, in case you’re not up on journalism scandals, was until very recently a much-celebrated wunderkind who plummeted from his meteoric rise last year after he was caught self-plagiarizing and fabricating quotes for several pieces he wrote at the New Yorker.

So it makes sense many in the journalism community would be outraged by Lehrer now profiting from his violation of the most sacred of journalistic ethics.

The whole debacle raises some serious questions about how the journalism industry should deal with people caught betraying the trade. Especially in an era where everything you do is recorded forever on the internet, is it possible to forgive and forget? Should we?
The relation between journalist and audience is one based in and reliant on trust. We talk to sources, dig for information and present the finished product to consumers who, we hope, take our word for it that the sources were reliable. When journalists lie, plagiarize or fabricate evidence, they undermine that trust.

And that’s in a perfect world. As it is, the public trusts journalists less than bankers. BANKERS.

So it’s arguable there is zero room for rehabilitation for people like Jonah Lehrer.

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan this week excoriated Lehrer and the Knight Foundation, calling for the “journalistic death penalty” for those caught flagrantly violating such basic tenets of journalism. Nolan points out that, in the name and network-obsessed media world, notoriety — even for screwing up — affords an advantage to people like Lehrer.

“In other words, Jonah Lehrer, even today, is probably in a better long-term position to get good quality writing gigs than is, say, a new and squeaky clean graduate of some Midwestern journalism school who doesn’t have any personal friends in the New York media world. This is a repulsive state of things.”

Take it from me, a squeaky-clean young journalist: that sucks. Nolan concludes his piece with a road map for dealing with plagiarists.

“So how about this: if you commit a huge, inexcusable journalistic crime, on the level of [former NYT reporter Jayson] Blair or Lehrer, you get blacklisted from paid journalism jobs. If you take time off, and do soul-searching, and improve yourself, and become a truly better person, and achieve spiritual redemption, we will be the first to stand up and applaud you. But you still shouldn’t be hired, until every talented person who didn’t commit an inexcusable journalistic crime is already safely employed. After that, welcome back.”

That sounds about right. Especially in the cases of Lehrer and Blair, journalists who didn’t just make mistakes but repeatedly lied and cheated to get good stories while the rest of us rely on, you know, facts.

Nolan’s Gawker colleague Max Read was even harsher.

“It should go without saying that I have no desire to help Jonah Lehrer hold himself accountable and resent being implicated in his therapeutic process. I’m not his therapist. I’m not his AA sponsor. If Lehrer needs my help, if he needs the help of a public audience, to ensure that he will remember to follow the most basic rules of journalism, he should not be a journalist.”

But not every case is as cut-and-dry nor is every ethics violator a straight-up villain like Blair and Lehrer (and they are villains).

NPR’s Nina Totenberg comes to mind. Totenberg was fired from her job at the National Observer in 1972 for accusations of plagiarism after she used quotes that had already been reported in other publications. Totenberg argued she was fired in part because she refused sexual advances from an editor. Furthermore, as pointed out in a 1992 Vanity Fair article about Totenberg, the reuse of quotes was considered fair game at the time.

Totenberg acknowledged her mistake to Vanity Fair, but rejected the pitchfork-and-torches mentality that can arise amid plagiarism scandals.

“I made a mistake. I have no intention of defending that piece of work as good. It wasn’t. On the other hand, I don’t think I should be taken out and executed at dawn, which is sort of what he implied in the column.”

In 1995, Totenberg told the Columbia Journalism Review she believed in a degree of leniency for those caught violating media ethics. “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezuz scared out of her to never do it again,” she said.

I’m inclined to agree with Totenbeg — but only to a point. Like in any trade, journalists learn from their mistakes. Rigorous ethics training and common sense can and should circumvent our making certain mistakes, but there should be a degree of latitude, even in some cases of plagiarism.

But there should be no latitude for Jonah Lehrer. Jonah Lehrer should never be paid or trusted to write another word that’s being passed off as journalism. Lehrer, like Jayson Blair, didn’t make a mistake. He profited from ongoing and repeated self-plagiarism and fabrication. His journalism career should be over, and sensible organizations like the Knight Foundation — who have since said they regret paying him $20,000 (roughly how much I owe for my bachelor’s degree) — should not pay him to talk about his screw ups.

They should give that money to journalists who don’t lie. We could probably use it. Telling the truth is hard and not very financially rewarding work.

Noah Hurowitz is former news editor of The Free Press. This piece was originally published at his blog where he writes about media, history, culture and other nerdy stuff. For more check out noahhurowitz.tumblr.com or follow him on Twitter @NoahHurowitz.