In case you haven’t heard, or just don’t pay attention to the world of media transactions, a young New Yorker writer named Jonah Lehrer is history. The 31-year-old staff writer resigned from the magazine two days ago after he was caught fabricating quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine (which was published earlier in the year).
There’s been lots of buzz about Lehrer; lots of “How could he?” pronouncements and befuddlement over a rising star scribe killing his career.
I don’t know Lehrer—but I think I understand.
Many years ago, I was hired out of the University of Delaware by The (Nashville) Tennessean. I was young and brash and cocky, and the woman who hired me clearly had high hopes that I could come in and immediately add zest and life to a flat features section. Hence, that’s what I did. I took on big subjects (Condoms! Death! Christian schools!) and turned quick phrases. Every month the newspaper’s editor, Frank Sutherland, handed out Best Of … awards, and I was a regular winner. In short, I was the young hotshot at The Tennessean; the kid with sparkle.
Only, ahem, it was bullshit. I could turn snappy phrases and come up with catchy ledes, but I couldn’t report for shit. Being 100 percent serious—I did not know how to report, and I didn’t particularly care about learning. My stories were thin and vague, and if I didn’t have a necessary piece of information, I’d just write around it. Sometimes ‘d call people I knew for quotes; friends; people in my building; etc. It was lazy, silly, pathetic stuff from a lazy, silly, pathetic wanna-be star.
Eventually, the lack of know-how caught up with me. As I’ve written about before, the errors added up and added up and added up until, one dark day, my editor reassigned me to the dreaded late-night cops beat. I was plunked down at a desk in the newsroom and given a scanner to listen to. “Focus on the facts,” I was told. “Only the facts.” During that time I was brought up to speed with wacky and wild concepts like, oh, researching. And digging. I learned that reporting is 800,000 times more important than pure writing ability; that details atop details make pieces sing.
Again, I don’t know Jonah Lehrer. He graduated from Columbia in 2003 with all sorts of awards, and quickly climbed up the young hotshot ladder I once knew. He was given plumb assignments by plumb publications; churned out three books; wrote for Wired and the Wall Street Journal and a million other places. I wonder, though, if anyone ever told him—truly, truly told him—what it takes to report. I wonder if he received lessons about accuracy and accountability.
Too often in this business, editors fall in love with the hotshots. It’s nice to see a youngster you discovered succeed so quickly. It speaks to your genius, in a sense.
Yet youth without knowledge is dangerous. And cocky youth without knowledge is even worse.