February 13, 2013

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Jonah Lehrer’s speech Tuesday at a Knight Foundation seminar “turned out to be significantly more about himself than I had expected,” Knight President Alberto Ibargüen told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. But the speech, Ibargüen said, contained themes of “trust and arrogance and groupthink and the appeal of inconvenient ideas that are still relevant” to the assembled community-group leaders ostensibly there to “explore the topic of community information needs.”

The speech was live-streamed over the Internet, though, winning it an audience keen to gawk at the former New Yorker and Wired writer’s first post-plagiarism-scandal public appearance. That outside-inside dynamic was cast in stark relief on an onstage screen displaying tweets about the speech. “Said tweets were critical,” J.K. Trotter understates in an Atlantic Wire post, collecting a few. A headline on a post by BuzzFeed’s John Herrman called the spectacle “The Final Humiliation Of Jonah Lehrer.” And one on Chris Gayomali’s post about the speech in The Week called Lehrer’s appearance a “bizarre digital flogging.”

The tenor of Lehrer’s apology contributed to the drizzle of displeasure online (which became more like a downpour after Poynter reported Lehrer was paid $20,000 for the speech — a fee not mentioned in Knight’s blog post about the speech). Toward the end of his remarks, Lehrer said he had a Milton Glaser-designed poster of Bob Dylan in his office — “In true magazine writer form, he also added a dash of color to his rehabilitation story,” Joe Coscarelli wrote in New York. “What remorse Lehrer had to share was couched in elaborate and perplexing disavowals,” Daniel Engber wrote in Slate.

There was no mention of the many other instances of fraud and plagiarism and misreporting that have been uncovered in the months since his disgrace. What about Seth Mnookin’s claim that Lehrer deliberately, obviously, and knowingly gussied up anecdotes from Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails, and then self-plagiarized his own deceptions? Or Daniel Bor’s claim that Lehrer misrepresented A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist, then blamed his editor for the error, then repeated the error elsewhere?

Lehrer “seemed somewhat less sorry” in the Q&A that followed his speech, Emily Temple writes in Flavorwire. He:

shrugged off what might have been an interesting query about Lance Armstrong (“I don’t really have an opinion on him. I’m just trying to deal with my own dishonesties, I’m not trying to figure anyone else out”), and seemed reluctant to deviate in the slightest from his ultra-personal message.

He proposed to return to journalism using an improved set of procedures — “I pity the fact-checker charged with backstopping Lehrer,” Craig Silverman wrote on Poynter — “methods of the technocrat, not the ethicist,” Jeff Bercovici wrote in Forbes.

Well engineered process and properly aligned incentives can lower the error rate for journalists just as they can for any sort of worker, but rules and rewards don’t explain why the vast majority of us strive to get it right every day, whether or not there’s a tape recorder running. We do it because getting it right is itself the end toward which we’re striving. The temptation to fabricate a quote or pass off someone else’s writing as our own just doesn’t exist. We don’t want to do those things any more than an NFL quarterback wants to be handed the Lombardi Trophy without playing a game.

Today, Lehrer tweets:

Previously: Jonah Lehrer falls into familiar pattern, fails to face his reckoning | Jonah Lehrer earns $20,000 honorarium for talking about plagiarism at Knight lunch

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

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