Photograph courtesy of twitter.com/jonahlehrer
Yesterday Jonah Lehrer—the disgraced fabulist and plagiarist who used to pen best-selling books and write big-think pieces for The New Yorker—got paid to apologize. If he thought that was going to even begin to fix things, he thought wrong.
At the request of the Knight Foundation, which among other things supports ideas that promote quality journalism, Lehrer delivered a speech in Miami Tuesday on bad decision-making. It was his first extensive public statement since he resigned from The New Yorker last July. (His first brief public statement, published in Los Angeles magazine back in October, can be found here). In exchange for making this speech in Florida, Lehrer pocketed $20,000—more than most journalists get paid to write a major feature story. You can imagine the gnashing of teeth that payday has sparked among the honest working press.
Then, just a few hours ago, Lehrer sent out his first tweet in eight months, linking to a transcript of the speech on his website and adding this short message: "Here is the text of my speech. I am deeply sorry for what I've done." The 15-word tweet was brief, but it seemed to speak volumes. As in: "I'm back."
I'm not going to parse the confoundingly circular reasoning—part self-loathing and part self-promoting—that is to be found in Lehrer's Knight Foundation speech. You can do that yourself. What I am going to do, though, is ask this question: For God's sake, where is Lehrer's posse?
Everyone needs a panel of advisors—trusted confidantes who steer us away from unwise decisions and proclamations that seem like a great idea at the time. Where is Lehrer's? Is he just not availing himself of the wisdom of the people who care about him—and I'm not just talking about his family, but about all those talented journalists he worked with at Wired and The New Yorker and countless other places during all those years that he was hailed as the second coming of Malcolm Gladwell? Or are they just not answering his calls? Because I'm convinced that if he'd gotten any one of them on the phone before he chose this way to begin his redemption, that person would have told him to choose another route.
A man who truly wants to atone for his sins does not need to be paid five-figures to do so. A man who truly wants to make up for the damage he's done to his profession goes farther, a lot farther, than Lehrer did yesterday. Finally, a man who wants to learn, as Lehrer put it, "a stricter set of standard operating procedures," and to be given the chance to someday "fail better" must dig a lot deeper than Lehrer has done thus far. He must call a lie a lie. If I were part of Lehrer's posse, that's what I would have told him before he boarded a plane to Miami.
Addendum: One good thing that has come out of all this can be found under the hashtag #worth20k on Twitter. Science writer Ed Yong (@edyong209) came up with the idea (with an assist from Veronique Greenwood, @vero_greenwood, a writer for Discover and Time.com). Yong introduced it yesterday in a tweet that said: "Something constructive: Tweet about the hard-working, ethical journalists you know. Link to e.g. of their work Use #worth20k Pls." (Full disclosure: I discovered it when someone kindly linked to one of my stories in Wired. But that's not the reason I'm noting it. Instead, I call it out because this hashtag will put you in touch with some of the best, most diligent, fair and fascinating writing around. Enjoy).
RELATED: Read “Caught Getting Creative,” Amy Wallace’s October 2012 essay on Jonah Lehrer’s implosion