September 26, 2012

Jonah Lehrer told Los Angeles Magazine’s Amy Wallace that reporters following the story of his downfall had abandoned the basic tenets of journalism: “Despite the avalanche of coverage, he said, I was only the third person to contact him for comment.”

That statement presented the media-reporting establishment with an unbearable irony: Had journalists bypassed a basic mechanism of journalism while writing about another journalist’s alleged sins?

Part of the problem with looking at something like this is that Lehrer had people speaking on his behalf. His website lists only contact information for his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and his speaking agency.

Over the course of three blog posts on Lehrer (published on June 21, July 31 and Aug. 16, respectively) Women’s Wear Daily reporter Erik Maza quotes: Gordon Mazur, Lehrer’s agent at the Lavin Agency; Jonathan Hammond, a spokesperson for Wired magazine; a spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Malcolm Gladwell; a spokesperson for The New Yorker (who gives him a statement from its editor, David Remnick); and a statement from Wired Managing Editor Jacob Young. Former Poynter Managing Editor Steve Myers said he’d tried to contact Lehrer through his publisher. “I was ALWAYS unsuccessful, though a couple times the publisher gave me a statement,” Myers tweeted.

Yesterday, I asked reporters who didn’t try to go through Jonah Lehrer’s spokespeople how they fared. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith says he attempted to contact Lehrer via Twitter direct message on Aug. 14. Boston Globe reporter Joseph P. Kahn says he emailed Lehrer on July 31, and “did not receive a response, on deadline or thereafter.” Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple told me he’d emailed Lehrer via an address found on his Wired blog, one that I verified Lehrer has used through another journalist who corresponded with Lehrer before the scandal. “If that email is in any way valid, then I count as one of the three,” Wemple said.

Joe Coscarelli at New York Magazine wrote he’d contacted Lehrer twice:

I e-mailed Lehrer first on his public Gmail address on the morning of June 19, before publishing a post on his repeated repurposing of his own work, and again on July 9 seeking further comment. He didn’t respond either time.

Coscarelli lists three other recorded instances of reporters contacting Lehrer: New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler got him on the phone, Tablet reporter Michael Moynihan spoke to him several times (Lehrer lied to him) and Charles Seife conducted a long interview with Lehrer from which he was forbidden to quote.

Plus Wallace, that’s eight people who have attempted to contact Lehrer directly.

After this post was originally published, a commenter called Jim
and L.A. Magazine’s editors (in the article’s comments) have pointed out that Amy Wallace told New York magazine her “sense” was that Lehrer “wasn’t including [Tablet’s] interview in his tally.”

In other words, my impression was that he was saying I was just the third person to contact him directly AFTER the [Michael] Moynihan piece and its aftermath. But again, I’m surmising …”

Since what Lehrer meant is thus far not knowable (I did contact Lehrer asking about that, but he hasn’t replied) I decided to go with the broadest possible definition of journalists contacting him. Which is why I counted Charles Seife, a journalism professor who wrote about Lehrer, and Moynihan, who famously did at the end of July. Forbes media columnist Jeff Bercovici also wrote me to say he’d contacted Lehrer on July 30 and 31 but hadn’t heard back.

Lehrer, Jim Romenesko points out, “declined to answer Wallace’s questions.” Romenesko’s attempt to get comment from Lehrer went nowhere, and he was the person who first brought allegations of journalistic malpractice by Lehrer to light.

Earlier: Jonah Lehrer says he’s writing about ‘false accusations that have been made about my work’

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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