February 12, 2013

Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced plagiarist-cum-fabricator masquerading as author-cum-thinky guy, just finished giving an address at the Knight Foundation’s annual Media Learning Seminar. And it was a humdinger.

In an exquisitely presented oration, Lehrer drilled in on the origin of mistakes. He spoke of how the FBI implemented standard operating procedures (SOPs) designed to drive the commission of error from the organization after it erroneously linked an Oregon man, Brandon Mayfield, to a 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid. Three FBI experts screwed up in “declaring Mayfield’s prints a match to one found on a plastic bag at the scene of the Madrid attack,” according to an account in the Chicago Tribune.

According to Lehrer, the FBI responded with an SOP stipulating that “all technical disagreements be fully acknowledged.” Scientists at the agency, he noted, are “supposed to sit down and discuss their verdicts.” As a result of changes at the agency, Lehrer noted, “forensic scientists in the FBI are no longer afraid to contradict each other.”

And that’s the lead-in to Lehrer’s own situation, with his lying and his plagiarism and so on. “What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of SOPs,” said the former writer for Wired and the New Yorker. “Whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted. Every conversation with a subject will be tape-recorded and transcribed.”

The “vast majority” of journalists, Lehrer said, don’t “need to be shamed into” following such Draconian procedures. But Lehrer says he does. “I need the rules because I know that simply knowing is not enough. Hearing about the failure of others won’t prevent me from doing the same thing.”

Reality check: Sample this inventory of Lehrer journalistic transgressions and ask yourself: Will any new procedures, even standard operating ones, stop the cheating?

After his presentation, he was asked why he’d even try to get back into his old profession. Why not bag it?

The response: “In the immediate aftermath of my resignation, I didn’t think I was ever going to write again,” he said. But he found that at his “lowest point,” he’d still find himself creeping toward his computer “at 3 a.m.” and “trying to write.”

At one point in his discussion, he acknowledged the weight of his misdeeds, “Whatever I do next will be shadowed by what I’ve done.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.