They say great magazines aren’t afraid of taking risks. By that standard, Wired is the world’s greatest magazine.
Wired will continue to publish the work of journalism fraud Jonah Lehrer, news that broke today courtesy of BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith. Jonathan Hammond, a spokesman for the magazine, told Smith: “Jonah was and remains on a features contract with Wired. We chose to maintain our contract.” Lehrer wrote the Frontal Cortex blog for Wired before moving it to the New Yorker this year.
Wired’s decision comes after: 1) Lehrer was found to have republished stale work for numerous blog posts at the New Yorker; 2) Lehrer was found to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his acclaimed book ”Imagine”; and 3) Lehrer was accused of botching all manner of scientific analysis in his high-minded pieces.
The disgraced writer’s staying power at Wired confirms that there’s nothing even approaching an industry standard on how to handle proven cases of journalistic malpractice. (See Silverman, Tenore of Poynter.org on this question). When news of plagiarism or fabrication surfaces, there’s a deep squadron of media reporters — yes, present company included — ready to deplore the transgressions and explain how they jilt the public trust. And that’s about it. We are a business of many scolders and fewer consequences.
Enough ethical blowbagging, however. There’s a towering practical issue at play in Wired’s decision. How does it play defense against the errors and fraud that Lehrer has perpetrated? Does it provide a free round of espressos for its fact-checkers when the Lehrer file comes through the system?
When asked by this blogger about such matters, Wired’s Hammond responded, “First and foremost, the integrity of our content and the trust we have with our readers is paramount. We have always put forth the best effort to ensure everything published in Wired is of the utmost integrity, and that won’t change.”
But won’t the quality-control operation have to pay particular attention to Lehrer-bylined pieces? “I can’t speak to that only because that’s a question our editors will have to assess when the time is right,” Hammond said. “I am confident that they will ensure, as they always have, that anything published by Wired is throoughly fact-checked and accurate.”
Wired’s research and fact-checking division applies rigorous screening of the pieces that appear in the print edition. Blogs on Wired.com don’t enjoy as much scrutiny. Accordingly, Wired has been retroactively checking online posts of Lehrer’s for factual and literary integrity.
In all, the magazine is making an impressive investment in a proven liar and fabricator. I’ll look forward to reading Lehrer’s future Wired pieces, knowing how the magazine’s fact-checkers labored over them. Perhaps that group is the hero of this whole Lehrer story. After all, his author archive on Wired.com is 10 Web pages deep. Yet the taint from Lehrer’s journalistic sins has fallen on other outlets.