Who Shoulders Jonah Lehrer’s Guilt?
Religion & Liberty Online

Who Shoulders Jonah Lehrer’s Guilt?

Jonah Lehrer’s recent firing from the New Yorker prompted The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman to author a wrongheaded apologia for the disgraced scribe. Waxman notes that, ultimately, Lehrer engaged in unethical conduct, but places the onus of his misdeeds on those who purchased his shoddy work.

The 31-year-old Lehrer, you see, manufactured quotes from whole cloth, freely lifted whole paragraphs from previous self-authored pieces and lied about both when confronted by reporters. Lehrer was fired and his promising career in journalism, for the time being at least, lies in shambles. (All three of his bestselling books are now under review by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

By any standard, Lehrer’s actions must be deemed unethical, and should serve as a lesson for those who would attempt to circumvent acceptable business practices in all areas, particularly in journalism, which makes specific claims for conveying objective truths. Failure to adhere to these basic standards is a moral shortcoming, deserving of dismissal.

Waxman, however, writes that Lehrer’s ethical lapses should apply equally to greedy publishers who apply too much pressure on unseasoned writers. She acknowledges Lehrer’s credentials – Rhodes Scholar, neuroscientist, bestselling author of Imagine: How Creativity Works – and determines he “was doing too much, too fast, at too high an RPM.”

The poor, dear child, in Waxman’s universe, is a Dickensian tragedy, forced to pick his own literary pockets in order to survive in an unforgiving adult world: “He found himself lifting from one column to fill another. He cut and pasted passages from his book to pad his New Yorker work.” She asserts: “There is precious little protection out there for young writers in the atomized digital age,” bemoans Waxman. “Few places to learn the basic craft of fact-based reporting, checking sources, double-checking footnotes.” Oh, the iniquity!

Additionally, Lehrer constructed a pastiche of quotes from songwriter Bob Dylan that were either invented, mad-libbed or incorrect. Of this, Waxman writes: “But, in fact, Dylan’s most salient quotes [employed by Lehrer] have no provenance.” That’s a pretty shaky foundation for Lehrer to build a nonfiction bestseller and subsequent career, and even less for Waxman to build a defense thereof.

Sorry, Ms. Waxman, but this isn’t because Lehrer might’ve been too hungover to attend his Journalism 101 class in college. There may be dozens of excuses Lehrer could employ – laziness, overbooking his time, a creative block – but lacking a basic background in ethics is not among them. Stealing – even from ones’ own writing – and repackaging it as “new” to editors and audiences is never excusable, and deserving of professional shame. This isn’t just journalism ethics, it’s also standard ethics in every other realm of personal and professional life.

But, for Waxman, the Lehrer saga goes deeper than repeated ethical lapses. “The cut and paste function is a dangerous temptation to the overstretched writer, and has wrecked more than one career. Lehrer’s is only the latest,” she says. In other words: Writers don’t plagiarize, word processors do. Whatever happened to the days when an “overstretched writer” returned advance fees and terminated contracts before succumbing to the temptation to cut creative corners for which they’ve been hired in good faith to perform?

The responsibility for Lehrer’s misdeeds, Waxman concludes, is the publishers who incur the financial burdens of presenting a platform for the works of ink-stained wretches. “Meanwhile, here’s the dirty secret that all authors know,” she writes. “[P]ublishers do not protect their authors by checking their sources or their facts. That onus lies with the writer.” You read that correctly. Unlike Lehrer’s mishandling of Dylan, I quote Waxman’s apologia precisely. Fact-checking exists only to protect the author’s garbling of facts and concocted fairy tales, not the publishers’ reputation and the readers’ expectation the author performed his homework.

But here comes the kicker, and you just knew filthy lucre required a featured role in this melodrama. For Waxman, it’s penny-pinching editors who are to blame for miscreant authors. “Publishers, who count every penny, have not changed this despite the debacles of James Frey’s factitious A Million Little Pieces, and Quentin Rowan’s plagiarism-filled Assassin of Secrets, the latter having been reported on extensively earlier this year in The New Yorker,” huffs Waxman. “Then there was Herman Rosenblat’s canceled 2009 Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived. Also fabricated.”

This is all, of course, poppycock. The New Yorker’s fact checkers are renowned for their diligence, but sometimes seemingly innocuous prose passages escape scrutiny. The first line of defense for any writer is the writer him- or herself, regardless the armies of fact checkers, copy editors and researchers employed by a publisher. It’s far easier to follow up on the details of something that actually was said or occurred than to discern that which was totally fabricated in the first place.

That last rests squarely on the shoulders of the many bad actors who betray ethical standards and willfully deceive their employers and their respective customers (or readers). Contra Waxman, we are absolved of complicity in the hoaxes perpetuated by Lehrer and his ilk. They knew better and, it is hoped, so too do the rest of us.

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.