Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business
“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.