Gladwell makes excuses for Lehrer

Undefined “conventions of blogging” a weak defense

The media drama surrounding Jonah Lehrer continued Thursday with author Malcolm Gladwell offering a weak defense of his embattled colleague, who’s been accused of “self-plagiarism” for reusing parts of old stories for other publications in blog posts for The New Yorker and Wired.

Gladwell, to whom Lehrer has often been compared, told WWD:

The conventions surrounding what is and is not acceptable in magazine writing, books and speaking have been worked out over the past 100 years. The conventions over blogging are being worked out as we speak… Everyone who writes for a living is going to learn from this. I’m just sorry Jonah had to bear the brunt of it.

While it’s true that a lot of writers will learn from this, the first part of Gladwell’s statement is ridiculous. Yes, people are still working out what does and does not work on blogs, but what Lehrer did has nothing to do with those mutable conventions. It has to do with one of the most basic and established conventions of journalism: honest reporting.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn said it best:

If anyone tells you the Lehrer situation is complicated, don’t believe it. The journalism issues are simple, and clear: Don’t deceive editors. And, far more importantly, don’t deceive readers.

So true. Yet, arguing that Lehrer’s mistake falls relatively low on the list of journalistic “crimes and misdemeanors,” New Yorker editor David Reminick also played the conventions-of-blogging card. “This was wrong and foolish, and I think he thought that it was OK to do this in the blogging context — and he is obviously wrong to think so,” he told MarketWatch.

What’s not as explicit as it should be in that comment is that Lehrer should have known better. It’s hard to believe he didn’t, though it’s clear to him now. “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” Lehrer told The New York Times.

Enough said. The principles of honest and transparent reporting apply to every medium. That much should have been obvious all along, and regardless what future platforms emerge—from electronic thought transference to smoke signals—the same rules will apply to them, too.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,