'It's hard to start at the top,' says Sharon Waxman of Jonah Lehrer

Salon | The Wrap | WWD | BuzzFeed | The Atlantic

A theme has emerged in the reaction to Jonah Lehrer's resignation from The New Yorker: it's not a fall from grace, but from genius. The Wrap's Sharon Waxman says what happened to Lehrer shows that "it’s hard to start at the top" with plenty of talent but no experience:

There is precious little protection out there for young writers in the atomized digital age. Few places to learn the basic craft of fact-based reporting, checking sources, double-checking footnotes.

The cut and paste function is a dangerous temptation to the overstretched writer, and has wrecked more than one career.

She ends by saying it's unfortunate that people are unlikely to get any more insights from Lehrer, who "may be a brilliant talent."

That label, writes Salon's Roxane Gay, is part of the problem. She describes a "cultural obsession with genius." Just look at how journalists described him:

At NPR, he is a “superstar science writer.” At Tablet, Lehrer is referred to as a “celebrated journalist.” In a Boston Globe article, Lehrer is a “rising star.” The New York Daily News refers to Lehrer as a “promising young pop-science writer.” In the Chicago Tribune, Lehrer is a “seemingly prodigious young writer.” The Atlantic calls Lehrer a “wunderkind writer.” The lavish descriptors go on and on and on as journalists try to find just the right words to capture Lehrer’s promise, his genius, his place as prodigy, to remind us that in that young man, there is (was) greatness. ...

Coverage of Lehrer’s work has always been this eager and breathless and adoring. He has fallen from grace but he was lifted to that place from whence he fell by a great many hands, including his own.

Malcolm Gladwell, who knows something about the cult of genius, also reacted to Lehrer's resignation by calling him "a hugely talented guy."

Waxman and Gray agree that a "talent" like Lehrer can be in an impossible situation when trying to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the Web. Here's Gray:

To be a writer, a public intellectual in this day and age, means needing to constantly produce content that is timely, lucid and compelling. There’s barely any time to think and process and generate fresh ideas. Stories grow stale in less than a day because the Internet is always moving forward, hungrily, in search of the next story, the next trend, the next think piece. You have to keep up or you will get left behind. Anyone could find themselves in Lehrer’s shoes.

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a similar point:

We now live in a world where counter-intuitive 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.

BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins has an interesting footnote to that point: He notes that The New Yorker once required all its blog posts to go through the magazine's fact-checking process, which an unnamed staffer said made it "impossible to get anything up in a timely manner."

Those days are over; "There's obviously more trust involved in that relationship," says Nicholas Thompson.

Related: The warning signs of a budding fabricator or plagiarist (Poynter) | Jonah Lehrer was supposed to be part of The New Yorker's solution to the Web, but he's just made the problem worse (BuzzFeed) | One of Lehrer's early editors: 'He is one of the most talented, hard-working, meticulous, and careful writers I’ve edited' (The Observer) | Earlham College cancels Lehrer lecture on ethics in decisionmaking (Forbes)

Earlier: WNYC: No reason to believe that Jonah Lehrer’s work for ‘Radiolab’ is compromisedJayson Blair on Jonah Lehrer fabrications: ‘There’s probably more than what we’ve seen so far’Jonah Lehrer resigns from New Yorker after fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in ‘Imagine’

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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