Thursday, June 21, 2012

Excuses, Excuses!

Jonah Lehrer just got a new job, and that caused a bit more scrutiny than usual to be focused on his writings, which turned out to be seriously repetitive. He recycled large chunks of his writing from one article to another, to his books. It's possible he even recycled other people's writing, which is called plagiarism. A summary here of the affair so far, with many links.

It's quite amazing how many people are willing to give the guy a break - he's an idea man and didn't recogize it; still has his shiny new job, says his editor. I think that Felix Salmon and Michelle Dean are right about parts of what went wrong, but let me work through this a little differently, in the light of what I said earlier about Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article on why women can't have it all.

Salmon understands what blogging is about: sharing your own take on a situation or article and giving plenty of credit to others via links. I think few reporters and editors, particularly at the larger newspapers and magazines, understand this. There are many reasons why not: they are stuck in thinking of journalism as "we write, you read;" their publications' policies are to keep people on their website, which means dumb links that take you to a list of other articles on the subject of the word you just clicked on, rather than informing you about other opinions and facts; and they are enmeshed in a culture that values certain things agreed to in that culture, which is mainly male. All of this does not prevent them from having on their sites sections they call "blogs."
"This was wrong and foolish," Remnick said, "and I think he thought that it was OK to do this in the blogging context — and he is obviously wrong to think so." (New York Magazine)
Because the blogging context is, you see, a lesser form of journalism. But not at the New Yorker! And since Lehrer has 'fessed up that what he did was wrong and foolish, he can stay.

It takes a certain blindness, of course, to have avoided learning what blogging is, but the MSM seems to have that in full measure.

Dean identifies that blindness as arising in a male culture of arrogance and overconfidence:
Even were it not the case – and it is the case – that critics have found inaccuracies in Lehrer’s work, it’s a bit disturbing that he hasn’t even revisited these issues enough, over the years, to tinker with the wording he uses.

That’s the confidence that gets rewarded — confidence which masks a lazy arrogance. “Vanity,” Salon’s Laura Miller recently wrote about John D’Agata, another guy pretty sure of his understanding of the world, “has the effect of blinding an artist to the very truths [he] intends to pursue.” Perhaps a little bubble-bursting is the right order, if the point is to publish excellent work. After all, so confident were Lehrer’s editors in his talents they apparently didn’t read his old work close enough to notice it was being handed right back to them. Perhaps a little less confidence and some more self-questioning would have done them some good, too.
I'd add another thing that is wrong here: Lehrer's laziness and unoriginality holds down a place in major magazines and publishing houses that could better be filled by someone who really has something to say.

And that's where Anne-Marie Slaughter's admonitions that breaking through the old male assumptions about what matters could help us all.
If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.

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