The first thing I asked my dad when I got to ScienceOnline 2011 was “Is Jonah here?” You weren’t but I spent the next few days with a group of people that truly wanted each other to succeed. I learned then that the community of science writers I was immersed in were both extremely talented and extremely generous. As I told Bora Zivkovic after the conference, the best aspect for me was being in a group of people with the experience and know-how of veterans in the journalism world but the enthusiasm of a startup.
I loved this spirit, and I loved even more to know that I could thrive from such a community. I knew that because I knew who you were. Jonah Lehrer, science writing’s wunderkind. You weren’t even 30 and you were already working on your third book after How We Decide was a huge success. You were pulling down tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on the speaking circuit. You’d just bought a $2.25 million home. When I got out of school, I decided, I wanted to be the Jonah Lehrer of my field.
Not so much anymore.
Last summer, it came out that you fabricated some quotes, took other quotes out of context and plagiarized in your most recent book, Imagine. You fell off the map. No tweets, no self-defense, no explanations, no apologies. You’d committed the worst journalistic offenses possible, and you knew it.
I had you in mind when I spoke yesterday with Dan Kennedy, a journalist and editor who taught me much of what I know about the finer points of journalism ethics as one of my professors at Northeastern University. Fabrication, he likes to say, is journalism sin No. 1 – plagiarism is 1a.
“They’re both extremely serious offenses against the craft, they’re both fireable offenses, but I do rank fabrication as being a little bit worse than plagiarism,” he said. “And that is [because] the victims of fabrication are everyone, because it causes the spread of bad information.”
So when you told me and the hundreds of thousands of other readers of Imagine that Bob Dylan said “It’s just this sense that you got something to say,” you were lying to all of us. It fit your thesis, but it was wrong, and so what we learned from it was wrong. Next to this, the plagiarism of a paragraph in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 story in The New Yorker seems a minor offense. Nonetheless, Gladwell certainly worked hard on that article. You didn’t.
Yesterday, for the first time since your deception was exposed, you made a public appearance. Jonah Lehrer, disgraced journalist, got up at a lunch sponsored by the Knight Foundation, in front of all those you defrauded and apologized:
My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about. I am constantly remembering all the people I have hurt and let down. Friends, family, colleagues, my wife, my parents, my editors. I think about all the readers I’ve disappointed. People who paid good money for my book and now don’t want it on their shelves. I have broken their trust. For that I am profoundly sorry. It is my hope that someday my transgressions might someday be forgiven.
The Knight Foundation, I learned later, paid you $20,000 for the appearance. On their website, the foundation claims that it “aims to help sustain democracy by leading journalism to its best possible future in the 21st century. We focus on funding Media Innovation, Journalistic Excellence, Freedom of Expression.”
An organization that claims to be about journalistic excellence gave $20,000 – an amount I might be lucky to make in the first six months after I graduate in June – to a confessed fabricator and plagiarist.
To be fair, I have seen Knight Foundation money do good things too. VTDigger.org, a small startup where I interned in Vermont, seeks to provide in-depth public policy coverage in a struggling media environment. They received $104,000 in Knight money to cover health care and energy issues in the state for three years. They were able to hire a much-needed staff writer and provide much more robust coverage on some tough issues.
Your $20,000 appearance lasted 45 minutes. The message this sent me and so many of my peers who shared my frustration was that if I’m lucky, I can get a job at a place like VTDigger and make $20,000 over the course of 30 weeks, working from such a grant. But if I lie, cheat and steal, I can make that on my lunch break.
You said yesterday “I hope that one day, when I tell my daughter the same story I’ve just told you, I will be a better person because of it. More humble, more careful, less tempted by shortcuts and my own excuses. What I will tell my daughter is that my failure was painful, but that the pain had a purpose. The pain showed me who I was and how I needed to change.”
I hope you’re a better person too. You’ve upset a great many people, and I don’t know if you could ever prove to all of them that you have changed and you’re ready to commit to what journalism really is. But here’s how you can prove that to me: Give the money away. Not only is it wrong for you of all people to accept money from the Knight Foundation, but it makes everything you said seem disingenuous. I could be sorry for a lot of things if it would put my firstborn through her first semester of college.
You could prove it to me if you gave the money to ScienceOnline’s scholarship program. That way, the young broke freelancers who might have once aspired to one day be just like you can go to ScienceOnline and learn this craft that you yesterday called a “profound privilege.” That way, maybe those young broke freelancers can learn how not to be just like you. Let them immerse themselves in the amazing community that gave you so much.
If you want to show me that the craft is more important than the money or the bylines, give the $20,000 to ScienceOnline’s scholarship program. This year, ScienceOnline Executive Director Karyn Traphagen told me in an email, just over $6,000 in donations and some of ScienceOnline’s own budget sent 20 students to the conference. Imagine what they could do next year with $20,000.
I will never again admire you as a journalist, Jonah, but maybe some day I’ll be able to admire you as a person.
And to the Knight Foundation:
It’s easy to write on a website that you’re committed to journalistic excellence. I’ve done it here, and it didn’t cost me a dime. It takes a lot more to prove it, and yesterday you gave me 20,000 reasons to think you care more about putting on a good show than you do about journalistic excellence.
So correct your wrong, and perhaps ease the rage of some of the dedicated, hard-working, barely-scraping-by young journalists you passed over when you sent Mr. Lehrer back to his mansion with a fat check and a pat on the back. Match his donation, dollar for dollar.
Image: Flickr User poptech
Note: editor of this piece is co-founder of ScienceOnline