Jonah, Swallowed

This ain’t no media blog and I ain’t no Jack Shafer, so most media controversies go without comment here. L’affaire Jonah Lehrer will be an exception. Michael Moynihan, whom I was lucky enough to work with at Reason for a while, outdid himself by busting Lehrer’s fake Bob Dylan quotes. (I say outdid because Moynihan knocks down a fabulist or two every year.) Also, the ensuing discussion of What Lehrer Means is unusually wanky and generic. Why this tendency to take a specific failing and ask what it Means for Journalism?

Credit to Salon, which moved quickly and found an angle that explained the “universal” problem by finding an unreliable narrator to describe it. What do you think of Lehrer, Jayson Blair?

I think when you’re young and you’re immature — well, I’m unclear on why he did it, but when you’re young and immature, it’s just very difficult, I think, to resist temptation.

I used to be young, so I can say with certainty that it is not that hard to resist this temptation. It’s actually pretty rare for someone to write non-fiction and feel this temptation at all. Very few journalists become as successful as Lehrer, let alone release hot-selling pop science books in their late 20s, so any criticism of his mistake is going to read like jealousy. But forget jealousy! Pity Lehrer for not paying a few more dues early on and having to live through the dull, rewarding agony of fact-checking.

My first full-time job in journalism, from April 2004 through August 2005, was editorial assistant at USA Today. The job involved fact-checking every verifiable item in every op-ed piece, including pieces by the paper’s founder Al Neuharth – who, we were told, didn’t want to get into back-and-forths about his pieces. (He also wanted the lay-outs of the finished columns to be faxed to him.) There were days when I ran low on time and decided not to call original sources to check facts. Those were the days I screwed up. It was time-consuming, and often seemed pointless, but I would track down the entirety of song lyrics or the grosses of movies or call back retired politicians if they claimed to have taken junkets in 1991 when they actually took them in 1992. Had Lehrer employed some young, starving fact-checker, the pedant would have asked where the mystery Dylan quotes came from.

There is no “genius problem” or “Icarus syndrome” at work here. There’s another reminder of the need to pay young people pittances so they can fact-check your ass.