‘I need rules’

Jonah Lehrer says he still intends to pursue writing

In his first public appearance since revelations of fabrication and plagiarism derailed his career last year, science writer Jonah Lehrer admitted that his arrogance led him astray and that he “needs rules” to prevent it from happening again, signaling that he intends to pursue a future in journalism.

At a Knight Foundation luncheon on Tuesday, he said:

What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures. If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be factchecked and fully footnoted. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, or an article, or the text for a speech like this one. Every conversation with the subject will be tape recorded and transcribed. If the subject would like a copy of the transcript, I will provide it. There is, of course, nothing innovative about these procedures. The vast majority of journalists don’t need to be shamed into following them, but I did, which is also why I need to say them out loud.

Lehrer wasn’t just working through his issues and atoning for his sins, however. He was making a play for what could have been his last shot at a future in journalism. Ever the master storyteller, he even auditioned for the part with a gripping tale, allegorical of his own, of course, about “the mental flaws that plague forensic researchers” and the biases that prevent authorities from recognizing them. Worse still, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon revealed shortly after the mea culpa was over that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 for the audition.

Thankfully, after some weak questioning by the foundation’s president and CEO, Alberto Ibarg├╝en, someone in the audience got up and asked Lehrer, “Why are you coming back? Why not pursue another career outside of journalism?” Lehrer’s response was touching:

You know, in the immediate aftermath of my resignation, I didn’t think I was ever going to write again. I thought about going back to graduate school. I thought about becoming a teacher. And maybe one day I will do those things, but what I’ve found is that at my lowest point, when I just didn’t know what else to do, I found myself at 3 a.m. sneaking over to my computer and trying to write—typing, just trying to get it out, trying to figure myself out, trying to understand how this had happened, trying to wrestle with it.

And as the months went by, and I just kept on writing—and I’m still trying to write for a few hours every day—I was in a sense rediscovering the mundane joy of the work, the everyday pleasure of just trying to turn ideas into words—that writing was my own way of making sense of the world and making sense of myself. So, that’s why I’m still trying to do it, and I have no idea if I will, but what I can say for now is that I have rediscovered my love this job, and I need to reckon with this publicly.

There is no way I could imagine going forward, or doing anything, without apologizing to the public, without accepting that what I did was wrong, without grappling with it. I couldn’t imagine a version of the story I’d tell my daughter one day that doesn’t include a story about today—about having to stand up in front of people to say what I did was wrong. This is not easy for me, but I know I needed to do it. I’m here today because I needed to be, and I still want to write because I remembered when it was too late how much I loved writing.

Fair enough. Lehrer has every right to try to rebuild his career. The question is whether or not news outlets should give him a second chance. It seems punitive to say no, but with so many equally talented journalists that don’t “need to be shamed” into following the rules striving for a foothold in the industry, it’s almost impossible to say yes. So let’s just say this: Would-be publishers ought to set a very high bar to reentry—far higher than Knight did.

The foundation should be ashamed of the hefty purse it handed to Lehrer. Practically everyone in the media has wanted to hear from him since he admitted his mistakes in a few brief comments last year, but this was not the way. In addition to not making up quotes, journalists should not pay for interviews, especially with disgraced colleagues. Doing so only suggests that for a lot of reporters, there’s more money in fabrication and plagiarism than in journalism.

Update: After initially telling The Washington Post that there was nothing controversial about the fee it paid to Lehrer, the Knight Foundation reversed course early Thursday morning, posting the following comment on Twitter:

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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