Jonah Lehrer's reputation took another big hit on Friday, when Wired ended its relationship with the writer for failing "to meet WIRED editorial standards" or "follow basic good journalism practices."
Lehrer's meteoric rise -- he was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker this past June, at the tender age of 30 -- has been swiftly undone this summer. He first came under fire shortly after his New Yorker appointment, when media blogger Jim Romenesko pointed out that the writer had recycled portions of a Wall Street Journal article, written in 2011, in a later item published by his new employer. Follow-up investigations would turn up additional examples of self-plagiarism.
The New Yorker opted to keep Lehrer on payroll despite his transgressions; however, a follow-up investigation by Tablet, which revealed that he had fabricated quotes in his best-selling book "Imagine," was the straw that broke the camel's back. Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker on July 30.
Wired -- for whom Lehrer blogged for several years prior to his New Yorker hire -- said in August that it would continue its relationship with the writer. (Lehrer was still on contract as a features writer.) However, after commissioning an independent investigation into his practices as a Wired blogger, the magazine finally decided that enough was enough.
Evan Hansen, Wired's editor-in-chief, announced his decision to end the magazine's relationship with Lehrer in a blog post Friday evening:
The review [of Lehrer's practices] uncovered examples of work that do not meet WIRED editorial standards. (List of posts with confirmed issues to date below.) Although Frontal Cortex posts were not edited or fact checked, we expect those whose work appears on our site to follow basic good journalism practices. Lehrer’s failure to meet WIRED editorial standards leaves us no choice but to sever the relationship.
NYU Professor Charles Seife, who conducted the review for Wired, and published his findings separately at Slate, charged Lehrer with "exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth." More than a dozen Lehrer posts -- chosen both by Wired editors and Seife -- reportedly contained examples of recycling, press-release plagiarism, outright plagiarism, "issues with quotations" and other factual problems.
While condemning Lehrer, Seife also placed some blame for the affair on the truncated editorial processes of modern-day media outlets.
Lehrer's transgressions are inexcusable—but I can't help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I'm 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.
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