Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Truth™—It’s What’s For Dinner

Jonah Lehrer
The saga of Jonah Lehrer's Hindenburg-like collapse continues to yield new revelations: he faked interviews, fabricated quotes, and failed to acknowledge sources. The best bits of Lehrer’s Bob Dylan chapter, the heart of the controversy, were lifted almost verbatim from Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. But the revelations have also encouraged some stupid armchair speculations of why Lehrer did what he did.

The worst I have seen so far: Lehrer isn't a trained journalist. Though an Ivy League graduate with a substantial publication record, Lehrer didn’t go to school to study the Five W’s and the Inverted Pyramid. Leaving aside the obvious absurdity of this claim—journalism school graduates fudge too, and many good journalists don’t have degrees in the field—it still smacks of elitism, and an effort on the part of professionals to guard their privileged enclave.

Saying Lehrer licked the bottom of the barrel for want of journalistic training is like saying Enron imploded because Ken Lay lacked an MBA. The problem is not what training the guilty party had or needed; the problem is the lack of a moral core to push back against frankly banal pressures. Keeping going, or increasing the pace, provided more rewards, both to Lehrer and to Lay. Without a ringing conscience to stop them, both succumbed to ordinary temptations.

Jonah Lehrer received success worthy of somebody with twice his experience. Not only did he achieve the sought-after sinecure of a New Yorker staff writer position at the improbably young age of thirty, he made more money for one or two speaking engagements than many newspaper reporters net in a year. He owned a historic Los Angeles house at an age and in a time when many of his peers struggle to make rent on one-bedroom apartments.

Ambrose Bierce
But these rewards depended on his ability to produce bestsellers at an almost monotonous pace. To do that, he couldn’t simply state the same bullet points over and over; he had to package old knowledge and new discoveries in appealing anecdotes and comprehensible language. So he held forth on topics he knew little about, like Bob Dylan, Marcel Proust, Broadway theatre, Pixar’s building design, and more.

This pressure does not excuse his behavior. Rather, his rush to the top without stopping to earn his chops reflects worse on his actions, not better. Newspapers have provided journalists with the best training grounds. But Lehrer made his name as a blogger, and blogs don’t reward long attention spans. My own 750-word target, a lingering remnant of my newspaper days, pushes the limits of web audiences’ likely perseverance.

Throughout history, the best reporters were not trained journalists. Many had degrees in other fields, including Tom Wolfe (American studies), Bob Woodward (History), and Anderson Cooper (Political science). Barbara Walters, Brit Hume, Helen Thomas, and William Shirer studied English. Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, and William Randolph Hearst never completed degrees. HL Mencken, Margaret Fuller, and Mark Twain never went to college. Ambrose Bierce never finished high school.

But today, most reporters go to journalism school. Just as business school graduates make lousy entrepreneurs, and film schools produced tediously self-conscious “cinema” of the 1970s, journalism graduates have a spotty record. As we saw in the Scooter Libby or Anthony Weiner scandals, trained journalists tend to robotically parrot press releases. Real breakthroughs come from engaged outsiders. And conventional newspapers keep boarding up their windows.

Meandering through the journalism department at the university where I formerly taught, and for whose newspaper I wrote in grad school, I was shocked one day to notice the emphasis in publicity. The honorary society for journalists had one dinky poster, but the advertising program had a whole wall of awards, flyers, and bulletin boards. The message to journalism students was clear: you exist to hold the space between ads.

Woodward and Bernstein
In that regard, Lehrer, who generated bestsellers with the regularity of the Nancy Drew factory, was a perfect professional journalist. While most publishers take a gamble on new books and regularly bleed money, they could take Lehrer’s name to the bank. But they could only keep doing so, just as he could only keep blowing his nose on Benjamins, if he produced a steady stream of easily digestible gruel.

As I said before, this stew of forces creates an environment in which scandal becomes nearly inevitable. We will almost certainly see more spectacular flame-outs in the near future, as we struggle to balance the demand for constant content with the ease of instant verification.

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