The Lehrer Case, Part III: Being Unethical To Be Successful

I’ve written a few posts already about the Jonah Lehrer story – the case of the writer whose self-plagiarism episode blew up into a case of outright fabrication.  This story fascinates me because of what it says about how modern media organizations operate, how writing careers work, and more broadly, about another theme that I’ve also touched on before – definitions of “success”.

This week, allegations surfaced involving another manufactured quote in Lehrer’s work, again discovered by an enthusiastic fan of the person quoted. His book publisher is also offering refunds to purchasers of Imagine, the book containing the quotes from Bob Dylan that Lehrer has admitted he made up. Wired magazine, where Lehrer is a contributing editor, states that they are reviewing his articles for them, and will then make a decision on whether to continue working with him.  Nevertheless, the agency that represents Lehrer as a speaker has indicated that, despite the controversy over his work, they plan to continue representing him.

There have also been some defenses of Lehrer in the past few weeks, from one of his former editors and from three other writers offering partial justifications for what he did. I’m not going to get into the arguments of “but he only made up a couple of quotes” or “other people are doing way worse things”, because those trivialize the important ethical and professional issues in this situation. I don’t doubt that Lehrer is a nice guy, a smart guy, a clever writer, and a really hard worker, but those are not good reasons to excuse what he did.  And it’s sad that the media organizations employing Lehrer apparently didn’t have the resources or the inclination to closely review his work – even after there were much earlier suggestions than now that there were problems with its accuracy, which Lehrer himself apparently brushed off.

The argument that I really have a problem with is the argument that, to be successful nowadays, a writer has to produce so much content that they have to recycle.

Earlier this week, I read this letter by musician and teacher Bonnie Hayes about the financial problems her students face in embarking on their careers. We’re not talking about rock stars complaining because their lackey got the wrong brand of champagne or because their limo was late, but about beginning musicians trying to support themselves while developing their craft. I see a similar situation for beginning writers. Many media outlets where writers could once earn a secure living have disappeared or been cut back – partly because of the corporatization of media leading to a focus on profit (and thus on cutting costs, like paying a decent wage to “content providers”). The ease of distributing material over the Internet, and the assumption of a lot of Internet users that “content” shouldn’t cost them anything, is also making it difficult for writers to support themselves from writing alone.

However, there’s a big difference between making a living as a writer, and making a living and then some as a writer/celebrity/brand. This gets back to how we define “success” – and this is what bothers me about the argument that Lehrer was at least partially justified in doing what he did because writers today have to produce “quantity” to be successful. Really? This wasn’t, as far as we know, a writer recycling or fabricating something simply to make that month’s rent payment or to put some ramen noodles on the table.

At some point Lehrer decided, or was encouraged, to launch himself onto multiple media platforms – to be the blogger, and to be the columnist, and to be the speaker, and to be the book author, and so on. Perhaps the demands of fulfilling all those roles turned out to be more than he expected, but still, he made the choice to pursue a career at that level of activity and visibility. And I simply don’t buy that his ethical failings should be excused because of that choice. There are many other writers who maybe don’t make enough money to buy a house like this but who make a living and are well-respected by their peers and their readers – and who don’t fabricate quotes or recycle material. And, I would point out, because they don’t do those things, their careers are perhaps more sustainable in the long term because they aren’t losing work due to ethical problems. Maybe they, not Lehrer, are the ones who are really successful.

UPDATE: Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review has a very insightful essay on the “thought leader” author and the potential pitfalls of choosing this role.

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