For the last several years, the universe has been kicking journalists. In 2012, they started kicking themselves. There was Jonah Lehrer and his fake Dylan quotes. There was Fareed Zakaria and his purloined paragraph. There was a series of other offenses, so many that the Poynter Institute’s Craig Silverman ultimately dubbed these last few months journalism’s “summer of sin.” It was happening, many suggested, at least in part because journalism’s traditional quality control mechanisms were in deep institutional decline; the fact-checkers had left the building.
At The New York Times, columnist David Carr invoked that bygone era when wayward cub reporters learned the finer points of news media ethics via “come-to-Jesus moments” where editors “put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it.”
At Slate, New York University journalism professor Charles Seife, who reviewed 18 of Jonah Lehrer’s Wired.com blog posts and identified issues in 17 of them, concluded that Lehrer’s transgressions were “inexcusable,” but also that the news industry shared “some of the blame for his failure” because it no longer subjects its novices to “layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word [gets] published.”
At Big Think, David Berreby called Lehrer “the product of a business model that is good for media corporations and bad for you, the media consumer,” and suggested that today’s news outlets have largely abandoned journalism’s “supporting machinery,” thus creating a climate where “the temptation to cheat will get to be too much for some people.”
But the “summer of sin” didn’t happen because fact-checking doesn’t take place as much as it once did. It happened because fact-checking got democratized. True, it now largely occurs at a different and potentially problematic point in the process—after an article has been published. But fact-checking also happens far more transparently than it once did, and overall, it occurs more frequently too. Now, a single reader in his home office can do in 15 minutes what it might have taken the New Yorker’s entire squadron of legendary fact-checkers days to accomplish in, say, 1992.
Take Jonah Lehrer’s books. After reading Reason contributing editor Michael C. Moynihan’s story in Tablet about how Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine, I decided to take a look at the book myself. In the midst of its second chapter, I came across a paragraph that felt oddly familiar: It seemed to be a paraphrase of a paragraph that I had written in a piece about Post-It Notes that I’d published in 2005 at a now-defunct magazine called The Rake. Then, I realized that while Lehrer quotes Post-It Notes inventor Art Fry three times in Imagine, he didn’t include any sources for these quotes in the book’s Notes section, nor did he mention that he’d interviewed Fry. (In multiple other instances in Imagine, Lehrer includes a citation in the Notes section when he interviews someone first-hand.) Ultimately, I realized that one of the quotes was quite similar to one that appears in my piece, and another one was identical to one that appears in a Wired article from 2008 that Lehrer did not write.
When I emailed Lehrer to ask him about the provenance of these quotes, he didn’t directly reply to me. Instead, Andrew Wylie, his agent, contacted me, and explained that Lehrer had interviewed Art Fry in 2008 and that Lehrer had “no memory” of ever reading my article. (Wylie also stated that the Wired piece had not been properly cited in the book.) In a follow-up email, Wylie said that Lehrer would be happy to cite my article in a corrected version of Imagine but repeated the assertion that Lehrer had “no memory” of reading it.
This and other aspects of the exchange seemed less than straightforward to me, and made me wonder exactly how inclined Lehrer was to the sort of fabrications Moynihan had discovered. In an effort to assess this, I started reading both Imagine and How We Decide. What I found was similar to what Seife found. Throughout both books, there are instances where Lehrer alters quotes, exaggerates statistics, omits key details that appears in his source materials, or otherwise commits journalistic misdemeanors.
What also struck me was how rich an information environment the Web has evolved into over the last decade or so. In December 2001, when Ken Layne famously declared, “It’s 2001, and we can Fact Check your ass,” hundreds of news media outlets had come online and it was becoming increasingly easy to see how they all cribbed from each other, how reporters at the same press conference quoted the same sources in slightly different ways, etc. And yet we were still in the Dark Ages then. Google Books didn’t exist. YouTube didn’t exist. Amazon’s Look Inside! feature was just a couple months old. Most newspaper archives were still extremely expensive to access. In those days, journalists gaming the facts still benefited from the relative opacity of information.
Today, things are far more transparent. For example, when I started reading How We Decide via Google Books, I immediately noted a sentence in the book’s first chapter in which Lehrer purports to depict a snap count Tom Brady exclaims in the midst of Super Bowl XXXVI, which took place in 2002:
Brady reads the Ram defense and calls out a series of coded commands: “White twenty! Ninety-six is the Mike! Omaha go!”
While such vivid, you-are-there bonbons of authenticity are the stuff best-sellers are made of, where exactly had it come from, I wondered. Did Lehrer watch a tape of Super Bowl XXXVI with the volume turned up really loud? Did he track down Tom Brady years after the fact and quiz him on what he’d shouted at the line of scrimmage during that particular moment?
A quick Google search pointed me toward an answer: Similar language is featured in a 2007 article in the Boston Globe that in part reads:
"White 20!" "96 is the mike!" "White 18!" "57 is the will!" "Set!"...
"Hey Jab!" he yelled out with urgency to his left, in the direction of receiver Jabar Gaffney. "Omaha! Go!"