Just some quick thoughts about the whole Jonah Lehrer fiasco. I may update it as things develop.
Quick recap: Jonah Lehrer is a young and, until recently, rising superstar in the journalism world. A brilliant thinker, or so it seemed, he's only 31 years old and has already written several books and landed a full-time job writing for The New Yorker, a veritable pinnacle of the field.
Today he resigned from The New Yorker after multiple scandals in which he was implicated for plagiarism and, most recently, for fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan in his latest book, "Imagine." Here's a New York Times story about it.
You ever been to a volcano? Or a sulfur pit? (Because, you know, I just assume EVERYONE visits volcanoes and sulfur pits for fun.) You can feel the heat from a great distance, and by the time you're on top of it, it feels like you're going to bake. My guess is that Lehrer's felt the heat a long, long time, but the trail behind him had collapsed by the time he decided to turn around.
Some of the big questions I see flying around Twitter right now are: HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? WHAT WAS HE THINKING? HOW DID HE THINK HE COULD GET AWAY WITH IT?
I'm working on a story right now about someone who did something very similar. Those are the same questions people asked about him awhile ago when his story went viral. So I talked to a behavioral economics and pscyhology professor at Duke University about it all, this strange art of deceiving others as well as oneself. I asked him those same questions people are now asking about Lehrer.
The professor explained a few things to me.
These things never start out as grand master plans. For many people, it's easy to look at everything Lehrer's done and think he's an idiot for trying to pull off a career in journalism by plagiarizing and making stuff up. But the truth is, big lies never start with a big plan. They start small.
The professor told me to look at where this guy I'm writing about first lied. Look at the results of that lie. They were probably positive, yes? He got good feedback, it triggered some happiness in himself and probably others, it advanced his status. Good things all around, and not something anybody would likely ever catch.
Well, you build on that over years, and suddenly the mountain you've built is, surprise, a volcano, and these volcanoes always blow.
I'm not a Lehrer expert, so I don't know his full history or whatever, but I've been a fan for a year or so now. That's what seems like happened here. I don't think Lehrer ever set about to intentionally defraud any of us or his editors. I think that, being a whizkid young journalist on a brilliant, rocketing ascent, he got caught up in his ambitions. One little lie led to a little bigger lie led to lies bigger still, until Lehrer felt, either from others or himself or both, enormous pressure to keep delivering huge results.
Instead of using that pressure to fuel his reporting, to drive him to dig deeper and deeper, it seems like he got lazy and then he panicked.
Boom goes the volcano.
I wish the best for Lehrer. He's a bright guy with great ideas and I think he'll be successful in ... something, I don't know what, but I don't know if it can be journalism. Not after this.
Like volcanoes, journalism scandals like these always leave the rest of us covered in ash.
It's people like Lehrer who make my job and my fellow journalists' jobs such a pain sometimes. Sometimes people look at a journalist like him and to them, by association, all journalists all become untrustworthy.
I'd like to grab a drink with Lehrer, to talk about this or just about anything else. I really do think he's a smart guy, and I think he'll do well. I'm almost sad for him—all I just wrote, it's all just my educated guess. He's clearly got a great mind and loads of talent, and it would have been really fun to see what he became. And maybe he still will. None of us are beyond redemption.
I think it makes me sad mostly because Lehrer was an inspiration to me—he'd gone so far at such a young age. Something like a beacon of hope. You can do this, this young. Go for it.
He's still a light along the trail for me, same as he should be for all ambitious journalists, but instead of a beacon Lehrer's light is now red, flashing over a caution sign. Warning, danger ahead. Down this path, the mountains explode.