Pity Wired’s fact-checkers if Jonah Lehrer writes again for the magazine

Update: BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke the news Wednesday that Wired is keeping confessed fabricator, problematic science writer, and self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer on contract.

Wired spokesman Jonathan Hammond told the site that Lehrer had "a couple of pieces that were already in the works" and was expected to contribute in the future.

Based on that information, I examined what this meant for the magazine’s fact-checking department, as did The Washington Post's Erik Wemple. The original version of this post remains below, but parts of it have been eclipsed by a new statement, issued by Wired Managing Editor Jacob Young, that contradicts what Hammond said:

[Lehrer] has no current assignments. After gathering the facts–from our inquiry and elsewhere–we’ll make a decision about whether Jonah’s byline will appear again at WIRED.

That’s a different scenario. It’s a much better course of action to complete the review of Lehrer's stories before letting him work on new pieces. I’m glad that’s the case, and it renders my first two points below moot.

My third point was that someone from Wired’s masthead should have explained the magazine’s decision to keep Lehrer on contract. On Wednesday, Hammond was unable to say whether Lehrer’s new work would receive special attention from editors and fact-checkers.

I wrote, “If Wired is going to stand by Lehrer, then someone from the masthead should do so publicly. It sends a stronger message and provides better information.”

The new statement from Young demonstrates the value of having editorial people talk publicly about editorial decisions.

That said, I apologize that my original post included incorrect information about Wired’s plans. Regardless of the source of that information, I used it as a jumping-off point and that’s my error.

The original version of this post follows:

BuzzFeed's Ben Smith broke the news that Wired is keeping confessed fabricator, problematic science writer, and self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer on contract. He had a few pieces "in the works" and is also expected to contribute new material for the magazine in the future.

The decision was seemingly made, in part, because, as a Wired spokesman said, "To date we have not come across anything that seems too troubling" during an investigation into Lehrer's previous print work. Spokesman Jon Hammond noted the magazine is "continuing our process of vetting" Lehrer's online material.

Three things to note about this decision.

1. Wired has chosen to keep Lehrer on contract and let him continue to work on material even though they haven't yet completed a review of his work for the website. Is it really so urgent to have Lehrer on assignment that the magazine can't wait until it's given all of his work, online and print, a clean bill of health?

More importantly, does this decision help Lehrer come to terms with why he did what he did, and understand what was/is going on? I worry that carrying on as usual gives Lehrer a reason to not dig into the true cause(s) of his transgressions.

For the record, I have no idea what that might be. But a pattern of deception like his is about more than sloppy work.

2. I feel really bad for the Wired fact-checking team right now. Erik Wemple asked Hammond if Lehrer's work would receive special attention in terms of quality control, and this is what the spokesman said:

I can’t speak to that only because that’s a question our editors will have to assess when the time is right. I am confident that they will ensure, as they always have, that anything published by Wired is throoughly [sic] fact-checked and accurate.

Wired has, by all accounts, a top notch fact-checking department. It's one of the few still operating inside magazines. And now, thanks to a decision by higher-ups, these checkers will carry the weight of the decision to keep Lehrer on contract.

Not only do they have to do their usual, tough job of ensuring the magazine publishes material that is factually accurate and legally defensible, they also have to justify the decision to keep working with Lehrer.

They need to ensure everything in his pieces for Wired is watertight. There is no room for error, and ultimately it's the checkers who are responsible for this. Lehrer and his editor(s) want this to work out as well, of course. But the checkers need to be foolproof to help everyone look good.

That's added pressure they could do without.

3. Hammond says he doesn't know if the magazine has any special plans for handling Lehrer's work. I suppose you can't expect a spokesman to know this information offhand.

So perhaps, and I'm just spitballing here, an editor from Wired could offer an explanation of the decision to keep Lehrer on contract, and how they plan to ensure the quality of his work?

I have nothing against spokespeople, and there are many questions and issues for which they are well suited to offer comment and response. But this is a significant and controversial editorial decision. If Wired is going to stand by Lehrer, then someone from the masthead should do so publicly. It sends a stronger message and provides better information.

Related: Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists | How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


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