One reason why democracy doesn’t seem to be working very well is that the public is becoming increasingly ignorant about what makes it work at all. Evidence of this trend comes by way of a provocative study by the Pew Research Center, which polled the public regarding which professions it believes contribute the most to society.
When we last looked in on writer Jonah Lehrer last summer, he had detonated his career and credibility with a series of incidents of serious professional misconduct that led to his ignominious firing from The New Yorker, where he once was regarded as a rising star. First he was caught plagiarizing himself, recycling a previously published work as an original essay for the magazine. That led to an investigation showing that this was not the first time he had taken such an unethical short-cut. Finally, it was discovered that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his best-selling book about, ironically enough, creativity. When confronted about this, Lehrer lied. Soon he was out of a job and condemned to the limbo reserved for writers who deceive their readers: Jason Blair, Stephen Glass, James Frey, Janet Cooke, and others. It is not a pleasant or profitable place to be.
Lehrer was recently invited to speak to a gathering at the Knight Foundation, and chose the forum to deliver an apology for his conduct. It would be difficult, I think, to deliver a better one. On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, the most ethical apology, at the top of the scale, is this one:
1. An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness.
That is exactly what Lehrer delivered to the Knight Foundation, and through his blog, the rest of us. He said…
“..I am the author of a book on creativity that contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking, without credit or citation, an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I also plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.
“My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about. I am constantly remembering all those people I’ve hurt and let down – friends, family, colleagues. My wife, my parents, my editors. I think about all the readers I’ve disappointed, people who paid good money for my book and now don’t want it on their shelves.I have broken their trust. For that, I am profoundly sorry. It is my hope that, someday, my transgressions might be forgiven.
“I could stop here. But I am convinced that unless I talk openly about what I’ve learned so far – unless I hold myself accountable in public – then the lessons will not last. I will lose the only consolation of my failure, which is the promise that I will not fail like this again. That I might, one day, find a way to fail better.
“The lessons have arrived in phases. The first phase involved a literal reconstruction of my mistakes. I wanted to have an accounting, in my head, of how I fabricated those Dylan quotes. I wanted to understand the mechanics of every lapse, to relive all those errors that led to my disgrace. I wanted to understand so that I could explain it to people, so that I could explain it in a talk like this. So that I could say that I found the broken part and that part has a name. My arrogance. My desire for attention. My willingness to take shortcuts, provided I don’t think anyone else will notice. My carelessness, matched with an ability to excuse my carelessness away. My tendency to believe my own excuses.
“But then, once I came up with this list of flaws, and once I began to understand how these flaws led to each of my mistakes, I realized that all of my explanations changed nothing. They cannot undo what I’ve done, not even a little. A confession is not a solution. It does not restore trust. Not the trust of others and not the trust of myself. What’s more, I came to see that my explanations were distracting me from the more important reality I need to deal with.
“Because my flaws – these flaws that led to my failure – they are a basic part of me. They are as fundamental to my self as those other parts I’m not ashamed of. This is the phase that comes next, the phase I’m in now. It is the slow realization that all the apologies and regrets are just the beginning. That my harshest words will not fix me, that I cannot quickly become the person I need to be. It is finally understanding how hard it is to change.
“Character, Joan Didion wrote, is the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life. For too long, I did not accept responsibility. And by not accepting responsibility – by pretending that all of my errors were accidents, that my carelessness was not a choice – I kept myself from getting better. I postponed the reckoning that was needed.
“There is no secret to good decision-making. There is only the obvious truth: We either confront our mistakes and gain a little wisdom, or we don’t and remain a fool.”
At the New Yorker, star writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned after it was shown that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his well-reviewed book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”
This was the final shoe dropping that began with one untied shoelace, the discovery in June that Lehrer had plagiarized from himself, lifting a section of a piece published earlier in one publication to include in a piece written for The New Yorker. This is a minor ethical incursion—-Lehrer had represented the second essay as original, so using prior published material was dishonest even if he was the author—but it launched his employers on a mission of scrutiny, investigating to see if the one transgression was part of a trend.
When it comes to professional ethics, you see, it often is. The principle of signature significance holds that in some pursuits just one episode can be enough to make certain conclusions. A writer of true integrity never borrows from his own published work without flagging the fact. Doing so even once indicates shaky integrity, and a willingness to cut corners. It may well indicate a proclivity to cheat in more egregious ways. Continue reading
The profession of journalism has now sunk to a point of incompetence and untrustworthiness that constitutes a serious threat, not only to itself, but also to the United States, which must have honest and reliable news sources to function and thrive. As currently constructed, the profession of journalism does not possess the tools or the will to address its crisis. Two recent examples should suffice.
The Saturday before Joe Paterno died, a tweet from a Penn State student-run website erroneously announced that Paterno was already dead. The tweet was immediately picked up by CBS Sports, and subsequently by the news web sites The Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Howard Kurtz, supposedly the preeminent media ethics watchdog, re-tweeted the false news himself. Many other journalists did the same. But it was all based on a hoax. Paterno was still alive. Continue reading
The so-called mainstream media have an obvious leftward political bias, and have had for decades. Either disingenuously or naively, publishers, editors, network heads and reporters deny this, although the evidence is overwhelming. Sometimes, as when supposedly objective reporters are openly adversarial to conservatives while covering news events and there is no discipline by their bosses, the evidence is also embarrassing.
Fox News, which was launched to counter balance this tendency, has at least been relatively open about its conservative slant: “fair and balanced” was always intended to convey Fox’s efforts to balance the scales, not to suggest that Fox News by itself was balanced.
Nonetheless, it is rare to see any of the liberal-oriented news organizations, even the most undeniably biased of them, like NPR, admit its objectivity problem—never mind surveys that show that journalists are far more liberal than the U.S. population, and regardless of the media’s repeated tardiness in covering legitimate “conservative news stories” like the New Black Panthers controversy and the ACORN “sting”( CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC are in the process of ignoring the similar Planned Parenthood videotapes). The journalistic establishment has closed ranks on this issue, consistently arguing that the “myth” of liberal bias arises from a right-biased perspective.
Thus it was striking and refreshing to see Marvin Kalb, a member-in-good-standing of the liberal journalists’ club confronting the most prestigious and perhaps the most egregious of left-biased media, The New York Times, with the truth it routinely denies. Continue reading
During the recent eruption of a national obsession with civility in the wake of Jarod Loughner’s shooting rampage—odd, because his actions had nothing whatsoever to do with civility—it became disturbingly evident that most journalists have only a vague sense of what incivility is. For example, using shooting or death metaphors and imagery are not uncivil. Criticism, even strongly-worded criticism, is not uncivil. Calling lies lies is not uncivil, nor is suggesting bad motives for official actions, if the critic believes that bad motives are involved. The fact that intense and passionate condemnation of an individual’s or a group’s actions angers or inflames others does not necessarily mean that the inciting words were uncivil, or even inappropriate.
Correction—make that fired Huffington Post blogger Mike Elk, and here’s why: Elk, a 24-year-old freelance labor journalist, used his press credentials to get labor union demonstrators unauthorized access to a Mortgage Bankers Association event, where they protested and disrupted the proceedings. He gave his credentials to one of the union organizers. Continue reading
“I think journalists should have the right to express their opinions on the topics they cover. More importantly, I think readers have a right to know what those opinions are. Frankly, I’d like to know sooner rather than later just how insane some of these people at CNN and Fox News are. To stop them from giving me that information is just another way to lie to me.”
Arrington is right, of course. The pose that journalists are politically objective is almost always a fraud, and efforts by organizations like The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle to prevent their reporters from doing things like attending political rallies for politicians they admire or expressing strong opinions on social websites have nothing to do with preserving journalistic objectivity, but rather with preserving the illusion of journalistic objectivity. “All this bullshit about objectivity in journalism is just a trick journalists use to try to gain credibility, and the public eats it up,” Arrington says.
But Arrington is also wrong. Continue reading
It has been with us for centuries, as long as man has been fermenting vegetable matter to produce alcohol, and it is a plague on the human race. Virtually every one of us has friends, relatives or close associates with the disease, or battle the addiction ourselves; although accurate figures don’t exist, estimates of the prevalence of alcohol addiction in the U.S. range between 5 and 12%. Whatever the real figure is, it is a lot, and the disease causes a wide range of problems. For example, close to 50% of all automobile fatalities involve alcohol. Yet the public remains shockingly ignorant about alcoholism, to the detriment and convenience of alcoholics, and the devastation of their families
The ignorance is also profitable to some corporations that are not even officially in the beverage business. The ethics question is, do those corporations knowingly and intentionally encourage and facilitate that ignorance? If so, they have a lot to answer for, and so do government consumer agencies and the media. This ignorance kills.
If your endangered Sunday newspaper is as shrunken from cost-cutting as mine, you may need some extra reading material as you wait breathless for the results of the House vote on health care reform. Here are some provocative ethics pieces from around the web: