Like the bright-young-things hypothesis, there’s a lot of the truth to that statement, but a limit to what it can explain. The modern media system can be blamed for all kinds of terrible journalism, from repackaged press releases to error-ridden copy. But reporters who commit the highest offense, boldfaced fabrication, are few and far between. Again, some useful perspective from Blair:

And to me, every time one of these scandals comes back up—and, you know, we’re probably less than .001 percent of the journalists out there—but it reinforces the myth that people have about this going on all the time in journalism, or the bias.

Indeed, the most egregious charlatans are outliers—not products of the system, but random aberrations. Most journalists, even the fame seekers, play by the rules or commit relatively minor (albeit punishable) offenses despite the pressures of their job and the general expectations of society.

Moreover, this is not a culture that forgives and forgets as easily as adherents of the bright-young-things hypothesis suggest. In her piece for Salon, Gay argued that the “same system” that made Lehrer will remake him, too:

At some point in the future, not too long from now, there will be a book deal. Jonah Lehrer will flagellate himself publicly to our satisfaction, explaining the how and why of his deceptions and fabrications. His phone will start ringing again because he’ll still be an intelligent young man who fits the genius narrative so well. Slowly but surely, Lehrer is going to start climbing back toward grace and he’ll reach it because he’s part of a system that is too big to fail, that very much wants men like him to get back to grace.

If history is any guide, however, Lehrer will never regain the heights he once occupied. The book deal will probably come through, as it did for Blair and Glass, but neither of them returned to journalism.

Blair is a life coach for people with mental health issues and as recently as December, Glass, though in possession of a Georgetown law degree, was having a hard time convincing the California Bar Association to trust him.

As Blair told NPR, “It’s not as easy to paint that perfect narrative to describe why people in our situations do what we’ve done.” One thing is certain, however: Their mistakes are their own, not ours.

Correction: Roxane Gay’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story. We regret the error.


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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.