The bright-young-things hypothesis

Jonah Lehrer’s mistakes are not our fault

The downward spiral of Jonah Lehrer’s career over the last month has shocked his peers and instilled in them a visceral need to understand. Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?

One theory, proffered by Salon’s Roxane Gay, is that “there is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” According to her piece:

Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.

Gay is absolutely correct about our fixation with bright young things. It’s an obsession that places enormous pressure on aspiring writers. The thing is, most journalists don’t do what Lehrer did despite the twisted system in which they work, and there are problems with the way that Gay applies the bright-young-things hypothesis to Lehrer. First, she wants to add white and male to the equation, and while she’s right that there is still too much gender and racial bias in this industry, I have five words for her: Janet Cooke. Black. Female. Fraud.

Another problem with the hypothesis is its simplicity. Yes, there is a cultural obsession with genius (preferably young, though not necessarily so) and a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world, which sometimes begets the emergence of false idols. But there is genuine virtuosity out there, too, and there’s a reason that we’re attuned to it and hold it aloft once found: Talent is inspiring—usually in a good way.

The question is, when a supposed-genius like Lehrer steps over the line, is he trying to live up to society’s expectations or his own? In a interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation on Tuesday, Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter busted for fabrication in 2003, suggested that it is both, but a few moments later, he leaned toward personal hang-ups, telling host Neil Conan:

I think in my particular case, it’s an example—although you see the same thing in the Janet Cooke story when you burrow into it, and you see the same thing with the Stephen Glass case. You’ve got a bunch of individuals all in this case who feel like they can’t live up to the expectations that they have for themselves.

And I think in some respects—you know, and this is a humbling idea—that maybe our place, for all three of us, was never to be at the top in terms of stardom, that we were meant to sort of be in the middle of the road. And if we had kept to those realistic explanations, or expectations, we would have been in a better place.

Now, one could argue that society pushes individuals to make its expectations their own. Gay wasn’t the only one who blamed the general public for creating a monster. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, had this to say:

[W]e now live in a world where counterintuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now.

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