Jonah Lehrer is a smug git who should never work in journalism again

Disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer had a forum to explain himself and his serial violations of core ethical standards of journalism at a Knight Foundation event. He wants a second chance, but clearly, he hasn’t learned enough about himself to prevent him from plagiarising and fabricating again.

Jeff Bercovici of Forbes wrote that Lehrer blamed his downfall on arrogance and “carelessness matched with an ability to explain my carelessness away”. It’s clear that he’s still leaning on the crutch of self-perceived eloquence to shift the blame and make his case for professional forgiveness. Bercovici said:

Lehrer used several analogies to make his case. At one point, he likened himself to the FBI, which adopted new failsafes after a case involving fingerprint misidentification revealed systemic problems. He compared his new “standard operating procedures” — a phrase he must have used at least 10 times — to the “forcing functions” that software designers employ to guide users away from accidents.

Bercovici said that the difference between Lehrer and his analogies was one of intention. That’s too generous of a reading for what Lehrer is trying to do. The mea culpa was in fact just another indictment of Lehrer and another example his self-identified failing of trying to “explain (his) carelessness away”.

Let’s take the FBI analogy. In the case, FBI and Spanish authorities based on current criminal investigative standards thought they had matched a fingerprint. They hadn’t, and the standard for matching fingerprints had to be changed. If we take this analogy and apply it to Lehrer, then he is saying that the failing wasn’t his but rather a failing in the fact-checking process.   It’s a silver-tongued attempt to shift the blame from the failures he won’t own to the institutions he failed.

I don’t say this with any joy, but he needs some more sleepless nights bolt awake at 3 am before he accepts responsibility for what he’s done. He’s a long way from earning a second chance in journalism.

I just finished reading the rest of of Bercovici’s write-up of Lehrer’s talk. Apart from the headline above (I sadly have no copy editor to blame), I’ve been diplomatic up to this point, but now I’m just hopping mad. To put it bluntly, the smug, self-serving git deserves to never work in journalism again. During his talk, he considered why he had done it, and his answers show that arrogance is not a past failing but one very much still present. He blamed his ethical failings on his intelligence and his busyness. Please! This isn’t a direct quote from Lehrer in Bercovici’s piece, but he wrote that Lehrer went on to explain just how busy he was:

Another is just how in demand he was as a writer, speaker and all-around public intellectual. Why consider yesterday’s mistakes, he suggested, when you can contemplate tomorrow’s $20,000 speech?  ”For me, the busyness was a way to avoid the reckoning,” he said.

Considering that $20,000 was not a figure that he just pulled out of thin air but the honorarium that the Knight Foundation paid for his speech, to me, it shows he’s still trying to avoid the reckoning. He hasn’t learned his lesson, only that he thinks he can get away with what he’s done. Is any editor foolish or delusional enough to give this fantasist, self-publicist and narcissist a second chance? That the answer is yes worries me.

Does journalism need another open-source CMS?

I have to say that I’m a bit baffled by a $975,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to the Bay Citizen and the Texas Tribune, two very well funded non-profit news organisations in the US. The goal is to create a nimble open-source content management system. I guess WordPress or Drupal, just to name two open-source content management systems, didn’t fit the bill. PaidContent is reporting that news start-ups expressed this need during meetings last year at SXSW Interactive. PaidContent said:

  • Manage an integrated library of text, video and audio files;
  • Maximize search engine optimization by improving the way articles are linked, aggregated and tagged;
  • Integrate sites with social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as bloggers;
  • Provide membership tools and integration with ad networks to help with new revenue streams.

I wonder if those news start-ups have heard of OpenPublish. The platform is a distribution of Drupal with Thomson-Reuters’ Calais semantic technology added to help deliver better related content to users. It’s got some nice monetisation features. The Nation and PBS Newshour use it. That’s just one open-source option. How does this not tick the boxes above?

I also know from my own work with news organisations, it’s highly likely that these non-profits will create a platform that is optimised for their own needs but not generally applicable. This is a larger problem with news organisations. All but the largest news orgs could use open-source CMSes and get 90% of what they need with little modification. However, a lot of news editors are obsessed with differentiating on aspects of the CMS that deliver little efficiency to their journalists and little or no benefit to their audiences. IT managers are more than happy to deliver these vanity features because it can justify a bit of empire building.

I do worry that this money will go into reinventing the wheel and deliver little marginal benefit to these start-ups and to the larger news eco-system. Wouldn’t this money be better spent supporting existing open-source projects and adapting them to journalism rather than creating another platform?