Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business

By Jack Shafer
June 20, 2012

“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.

Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.

Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.

As entrepreneurial as Strout was about repurposing, he never sanctioned the wholesale lifting of paragraphs from old pieces and their insertion into new publications with a few tweaks – what Lehrer stands guilty of. Under Stroutian rules, writers were expected to freshen their work enough to make some plausible claim to originality.

In the early hours of l’affaire Lehrer, my instincts were telling me that Lehrer had transgressed, but I couldn’t figure out whether his offense was a felony, a misdemeanor or a violation of journalistic taboo. A variety of observers were calling what Lehrer did “self-plagiarism,” but in my mind plagiarism requires some act of thievery. You can’t steal money out of your own bank account, can you? You can’t commit adultery with your own spouse, right?

The words Lehrer wrote “belonged” to him even if he had surrendered the copyright to the places he published them. My feeling was that you could call Lehrer lazy for repeating himself, you could call him a hack, you could call him a sneak, but you couldn’t call him a thief. He was an onanist, playing self-abuse games with his copy, but he wasn’t any sort of plagiarist.

But not long after I committed this thought to my keyboard, news reached me via the Twitter feed of the blindingly handsome @davidfolkenflik that Edward Champion was accusing Lehrer of plagiarizing Malcolm Gladwell. If it turns out that Lehrer is a plagiarist as well as an onanist, you can click here for my views on plagiarists.

If Lehrer committed no plagiarism, the discussion will return to how to think about his repetitions. The mores of journalism permit all kinds of republication. For example, if Lehrer wrote a magazine piece and then resold the piece to another publication that knew it was receiving used goods, nobody would be harmed or offended as long as there was no pretense about the work being original. Indeed, republication of previously published works is what press syndicates and wire services do every day. It was also the business model for the Reader’s Digest, which usually condensed previously published pieces.

Likewise, if Lehrer or another writer were to re-traffic the occasional half-sentence or catch phrase from their prior work, no alarms should ring, because self-citation for trivial self-quotation, especially of the “catch phrase” quality, is more trouble than it’s worth.

The republication “danger zone” exists somewhere between rehashing the complete piece and the signature phrase. If a writer feels that he must revisit his old material, it’s only fair for him to alert readers that he may be taking them to a place they’ve already visited – unless, of course, he brings new literary value to the passages or presents new or newish findings. If he feels he has no alternative but to quote himself, it’s a simple matter to provide a footnote to the previous work, or a hyperlink, or some sort of disclaimer that alerts readers (and his publisher!) that he’s recycling.

Lehrer didn’t do this. He cheated his new publishers by breaking the implied (or written) contract that he was producing original copy. Today he’s apologizing for his recycling – “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” he tells the Times – but I’m not buying it. No journalistic neophyte (he’s 30 years old with four books to his credit), Lehrer knew that the New Yorker would have rejected the gently used copy from his old Wall Street Journal columns had he informed them of the lack of originality of his “new” work.

We mustn’t put too much effort into understanding Lehrer’s self-destructive behavior. When forced to play the armchair psychiatrist, I usually conclude by saying that onanists, plagiarists and fabulists break the rules of journalism because they either disdain the discipline or feel inadequate to its demands. But let me warn you: I’ve written something like that before.

******

My Strout anecdote: I never met him, but after he died in 1990 I attended the estate sale at his house. The goods were pretty picked over by the time I got there. But in his office a few 3-by-5 cards in cardboard trays containing indecipherable notes for ancient stories were still for sale. I regret not buying the whole lot. Send your thoughts to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and join the estate sale that is my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

8 comments

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In 2006, I quoted a line from William Goldman about how no one knows anything in Hollywood. In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer quotes the same line. This is not surprising, since Goldman’s comment is one of the most famous things ever written about Hollywood and has been quoted, by journalists, probably hundreds of times since it was written. If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.

By the way, if I run across the same absurd allegation anywhere else, I intend to reproduce my comment verbatim. Why? Because I thought about what I wanted to say, I’m comfortable with the way I said it, and I see no reason to tinker with my own language for the sake of tinkering with my own language.

Posted by malcolmgladwell | Report as abusive

Seriously! Gladwell has this right.

Does anyone remember when Fantasy Records sued John Fogerty in 1985 for borrowing from John Fogerty — ‘stealing’ from himself?
A summary:http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs  /archives/85039

A similar, silly charge with predictable results.

Best words in the best order from a good writer Lehrer — well worth repeating, I say.

Posted by thomasswiss | Report as abusive

What both Jack Shafer and Malcolm Galdwell conveniently omit (and what indeed the blindingly handsome sexiest man who works at NPR alive also observed) is that Jonah Lehrer took the very same elided fragments and the very same ellipses that Gladwell did.

Here are the specifics:

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Formula.” The New Yorker (October 16, 2006): “One of the highest-grossing movies in history, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ was offered to every studio in Hollywood, Goldman writes, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars? . . . Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.’”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 144: “For instance, one of the highest-grossing movies in history, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was offered to every studio in Hollywood, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes?’ Goldman asks. ‘Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars. . .? Because nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.’”

Goldman’s quote is indeed famous. But what is distinct is the identical manner that Lehrer parsed it from Goldman’s book, as seen here (as well as the identical language outside the quote):

bit.ly/KUf4X2

Posted by drmabuse | Report as abusive

Surely the self-plagiarization issue is one of honesty, transparency and disclosure? Lehrer did not disclose this “source” (himself) to The New Yorker which then posted this disclaimer on Lehrer’s post after the issue broke:
“Editors’ Note: Portions of this post appeared in similar form in an April, 2011, post by Jonah Lehrer for Wired.com. We regret the duplication of material.”

How good does that make TNY feel about its standards? As a reader, I’m not impressed with the ethics though he is a pretty good writer.

We can debate forever whether self-plagiarism is ethical, proper or acceptable journalism. Maybe we’ll have more ideas after Wired.com finishes reviewing his 300 previous posts. I really don’t care. It seems to me the real victim is credibility which seems in short supply some days.

I hope editors everywhere are diligent, assuming there are any still employed.

Posted by jeffdomansky | Report as abusive

A quick follow on my earlier comment to note The New Yorker has flagged at least five of Lehrer’s posts with Editor’s Notes saying in part, in each: …”We regret the duplication of material.” Appropriate? Yes. Credible? No.

Posted by jeffdomansky | Report as abusive

One presumes he could have said, “As I wrote in the XYZ two years ago…” and been clearer about his recycling. Or he could have been sneakier and reworded the idea, use a similar but not the same examples. The fact that he put it out there identically either shows naivete, the editors did sloppy work in not Googling the content for duplication in the first place, or he thought the idea had enough merit to simply bear repeating. He should have asked someone, he didn’t. Let’s cut him some slack and see if he learned something, perhaps his error will help the next columnist avoid the same mistake. If he knowingly plagiarized work, that’s a different issue, quoting someone with attribution is not plagiarism.

Posted by daphnesylk | Report as abusive

People can “repeat” themselves as much as they want, and Mr. Gladwell is welcome to either copy and paste his comment or point readers to it. The question is whether it would be ethical to sell it twice to two different publishers, each of whom expect to get original work. That, it seems to me, is what Lehrer mainly stands accused of.

Granted, Gladwell and Lehrer live in a world in which they’re paid to repeat themselves, to some degree. Generally, people who invite Gladwell to give a talk don’t expect something dramatically new; it’s more like hiring Billy Joel to play your end-of-year, hand-out-the-bonuses concert. You don’t care about his new avant-garde direction. You want him to play “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack,” and maybe “Zanzibar” if you’re feeling really wild and crazy. If you get a Keith Jarrett Trio improvisational experience instead, you’re going to be highly disappointed.

But one of the hallmarks of professionalism is knowing what your audience expects, what you can do, and what you CAN’T do. It’s one thing to give a talk you’ve given before; those earlier performances can be justified as practice, as a later audience gains the benefit of your having tried out your material on earlier audiences, worked out your slides, gotten your pauses right, etc.. Places like The New Yorker don’t contract for pieces that include big chunks of recycled material. And everyone knows it.

And Hollywood turns out nothing but stories. Is there not another one with the moral “no one knows anything in this town?”

Posted by askpang | Report as abusive

Hypocrites all of us. Need I say more? No.

Posted by josephmartins | Report as abusive