One of the important parts of our lives that we build for ourselves is our career. Not to say that is the case for everyone, but for many, the continued construction and advancement of one’s career has the surface benefit of generating a better income, but also the deeper benefit of being able to take more pleasure in one’s work. In other words, people who work for a living strive to become more successful in their careers, whatever that measurement of success happens to be. This is not to dismiss other components that are equally important in a well-balanced life, but for today, let’s just focus on career.
In most careers, there are specific pitfalls to be avoided. Sometimes these are small, and when committed, are easily overcome. Often these come to us in the form of temptations. Temptations to cut corners or take a shortcut, to engage in duplicity and complicity. Many times, these amount to only slight deviations from what we would normally consider to be our own moral standards. But many careers also hold inexcusable wrongs. Wrongs that when committed, will precipitate the end of the career itself. As an instructor in post-secondary education, for example, there are actions that I could carry out that would be instant career-enders. Wrongs that if committed, would ensure that I never work in higher education or academia again. I know these rules must be absolute, and I accept the standards I must uphold, absolutely. I find this easy to do, as these absolutes also align very closely to moral standards that I hold for myself.
One such evil in the world of journalism and writing is that of plagiarism. Jonah Lehrer is the journalist who resigned from The New Yorker magazine last summer after it was discovered that he plagiarized by fabricating quotes, stealing the work of others, and recycling his own writing. He has recently come under media scrutiny again, as he was just paid a $20,000 honorarium from the Knight Foundation to speak at a media seminar earlier this week. His speech has since been analyzed by many outlets, with many questioning both the sincerity and mechanics of his public apology.
I like to believe in the best in people. I also know that good people, when under a great deal of stress, can make some very bad decisions. Decisions which then require more bad behaviour to keep covered up; lies grow like a weed until uprooted. I am willing to accept that I do not know Mr. Lehrer, and therefore, having very little information about him or the scandal, I’m uncomfortable in making grand accusations about the man himself. However, this doesn’t let him off the hook, career-wise.
Journalism has such a ‘career-ending move’; in that once you lose the most basic trust that what you wrote is true, valid, and factual, I’m not sure you can get it back. Particularly when the list of offences is so long, and committed so brazenly. It is always a shame when someone can’t return to the work they love to do. I understand deeply the desire for a writer to be able to keep writing for a living. Our careers are valuable, and when we dedicate so much time and effort to building, curating, and growing our careers, it seems a shame to throw all that away. But for Mr. Lehrer, I’m afraid it’s all over. We, as readers, cannot accept him back, no matter how many systems he puts in place, fact-checkers he hires, or how sincere his intentions. It is time for him to go start a new career, one that doesn’t involve non-fiction writing.
In my family, we joke about throwing it all away to become a greeter at Wal-Mart. For Jonah Lehrer, this may not be far from the truth.