Jonah Lehrer, promising young golden boy of Gladwellian think-journalism, has had a bad eight months. Caught plagiarizing himself last June; soon after, caught fabricating quotes, and forced to resign from his plum gig at the New Yorker, and rapidly cast out of the chosen fold to wander the wilderness as a sort of fallen angel. Even the Knight Foundation, which just this week paid Lehrer $20K for his big mea culpa speech, is already saying that it regrets doing so. Some are urging him to donate the money to charity. All in all, his no doubt meticulously-planned return to the spotlight has fallen flat.
So lots of people in journalism are still (rightly) sickened by what Jonah Lehrer did. Great. What should become of people like him?
Jonah Lehrer was not the first high-profile journo-criminal, and he won't be the last. The offenses vary—plagiarism, fabrication, lazy or corrupt reporting—and so do the aftermaths. All offenders suffer a period of universal condemnation, and all are fired, but what then? Some leave journalism entirely—Jayson Blair became a life coach. Some stay quiet for a while and then drift back into writing through outlets of either a lower profile or a different ideological bent—Judith Miller became a theater critic and Fox commentator. Others fall out of the public eye entirely—anyone talked to Janet Cooke lately? And some—if they are young, and promising, and polite, and have all the right friends, as Jonah Lehrer does—will try to rehabilitate their image enough to make another bid for their former media glory.
The only common theme, really, is that there is no accepted standard of what should happen to these people. In other words: at what point should someone receive the journalism death penalty? What level of infraction is necessary for the profession to collectively say to someone, "We will shun you from now until the day you die. You are done here."
In the question-and-answer session after his speech, Lehrer said he found himself compelled to keep writing. Super. No one can stop someone from writing—there's always Tumblr and Twitter and diaries—and no one can really stop a villain from publishing a book, since "Why I Am Such a Villain" is a pretty decent topic for a book. But the highest echelons of the popular media are clubby enough that there can damn sure be, at minimum, a gentleman's/gentlewoman's agreement not to hire a writer or publish a writer who has demonstrated complete untrustworthiness. You still can't trust their future work (no matter how many "forcing functions" Lehrer conceives, to delegate the work of keeping lies out of his copy to others). And depriving them of a platform is a reasonable punishment for their past deeds.
The Knight Foundation has started apologizing for paying Jonah Lehrer to speak for the latter reason. No one has said his speech was fabricated, necessarily (though it was glib and intellectually slapdash). We've said that justice demands that he not be rewarded for what he did. Lehrer is a great test case for this standard, because he is pernicious, well-groomed, and well-connected enough that the idea of his worming his way back up to America's top magazines is not hard to imagine. The New Yorker did not fire him even after they found out that he was republishing his own old stories as new blog posts for them, for chrissake. He was, and still is, perceived by powerful people in the media as a young man with vast promise who momentarily went astray. (It's worth noting that there is some dispute over whether Lehrer was really a good science writer at all. And he had quite a professional advantage: if you don't mind fabricating things and taking unethical shortcuts, it's much easier to write a compelling story out of difficult material.) If, in ten years, when you're struggling to pay your rent with freelance gigs, you pick up a copy of the New Yorker to find a new Jonah Lehrer story, you may wish that the industry had a somewhat firmer rule for how to treat these post-scandal careers.
Redemption is the fundamental promise of humanity. We should not be enthusiastic about cutting off anyone's chance to better themselves after a downfall. But that must be balanced with the fact that we work in a competitive industry in which many, many good and talented and deserving people are not able to make a living, simply because there is only so much work and so much money and so many good full time journalism jobs paying a living wage to go around.
It makes sense, then, to prioritize hiring those who have not plagiarized or fabricated or otherwise committed a grievous, beyond-the-pale journalistic crime. Having your name on the tip of every editor's tongue, even if it's for doing something bad, goes a long way in this business; it only takes one editor to say, "Hey, that guy Lehrer was really smart before he fucked up, maybe we should give him a try." (If you think this can't happen, you have a far higher opinion of media hiring practices than I do.) 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.
So how about this: if you commit a huge, inexcusable journalistic crime, on the level of 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.
[Image via Getty]