Fall from Grace
At exactly 9:53 AM Central Time, on June 19, Jonah Lehrer ceased to be science writing’s Wunderkind and found himself in the virtual company of journalistic miscreants who've straddled and overstepped the lines of what’s ethical in journalism.
Exposed by media critic Jim Romenesko, Lehrer, the prolific writer and author of books such as "Imagine: How Creativity works" and "How we Decide" and blogger of counterintuitive studies and ideas, was found to have repeatedly reused chunks of his previously published work, sometimes slightly modified, in subsequent articles and inserted into blogs, most notably for his new employer, The New Yorker.
The Teacher Gets a Lesson
What rankles in particular appears to be the sheer amount of recycling Jonah's practiced with his own work, not to mention reports of how long he's been at it. Evidence posted on various websites shows his duplicated prose appearing in articles from WIRED to New York Times magazine to the Wall Street Journal to his newest gig at the aforementioned New Yorker where he’s been on staff for a mere four weeks . Calling Lehrer everything from "onanist" to "recyclist" and the especially cutting "plagiarist" -- kryptonite for any writer with any sort of reputation -- offended journalists across the online media tore into Lehrer like a tornado into a small Kansas town once the news broke, leaving the man's reputation in tatters across the search engines.
"Lehrer" is German for teacher. The teacher has been schooled.
Is a Comeback Possible?
While the journalist community sorts out publicly what Lehrer's offense was or is (self-plagiarist is what he's actually been called -- a term even some of his critics disagree with, posing that plagiarism is stealing and that you really can’t steal from yourself, but that little qualifier hardly softens the blow as no writer wants the P-word anywhere near his or her name), beyond argument is the serious damage levied at the new New Yorker writer's good name and the need for damage control.
Lehrer himself has made but a single public statement since, commenting to an inquiring Times reporter "It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong," while otherwise remaining mum and, it could be argued, in hiding.
So the big question is: Can Lehrer the teacher come back and eviscerate the public perception of Lehrer the "self-plagiarist?"
Get Your Comeback Underway
The answer is "Yes and no."
The very medium that made him famous will also humble him into eternity. In my book Executive Presence, I quote Clive Thompson of Wired.com, where Lehrer was a contributing editor, who writes: “Google is not a search engine. It’s a reputation management system. Online your rep is quantifiable, findable and totally unavoidable.”
This is as unavoidable a fact for Jonah Lehrer as it is for any professional whose decisions and inherent consequences are archived on the internet for generations to come. So how can you stage a comeback for your reputation once the dreaded asterisk has been placed next to your name? The following suggestions for Lehrer the scribe are universal ones, and applicable not just to the rich and famous. We can all learn from them.
1. Speak Up & Speak Out
Right now he's letting others set the agenda as evidenced by the many news articles written about him and his digressions, writings, thinking, probable state of mind, possible career trajectory etc. This is one instance where silence is not golden.
Not to be tongue-in-cheek, but I've written about this before in Executive Presence:
"In a crisis situation, many leaders and executives make the mistake of battening the hatches and hunkering down, out of sight. You should go out of your way to be available to both the media and any stakeholders involved in the situation. Refusing to speak to the media or communicate openly with customers or stakeholders can escalate the initial crisis into a secondary crisis. Conversely, being open and honest with the public can often defuse a crisis. Human curiosity is a powerful thing. Sometimes just answering questions candidly can turn a scandal into a nonstory."
Lehrer needs to influence the agenda and give his side of the story, if only to provide a human counter-story to the many narratives about him out there. If it resonates, people can show empathy; that can’t happen if you don’t give them the chance to feel empathy.
2. Get to Work Immediately
In the 14 days after the news of Lehrer-Gate broke, thousands have likely visited the New Yorker website to see if Lehrer has written any new blogs, and learned he hasn’t. Understandable under the circumstances, but unfortunate for him nonetheless.
The longer his blog, Frontal Cortex, stays stagnant, the more it stokes the flame of those who say, "See, he's out of ideas. He can't produce anything interesting unless it's recycled." What he needs to do now to silence those who say he CAN'T is DO. Whatever compelling research he's gathered and thought about putting into the type of counterintuitive story his readers love, now's the time to pull all-nighters to get it out and blow the minds of his audience, perhaps even focusing the spotlight on himself, writing about the neuroscience of "why we think we can get away with it."
3. Start a Public Dialogue ASAP
As far as I can tell, Lehrer's book sales haven't suffered; his editor at the New Yorker told Jim Romenesko Jonah's not suspended; and his agent at the Lavin agency which books his speaking gigs shrugged off the controversy over their client.
What he's lost in easily perceivable measure is the respect of the journalistic community, which not only strongly condemns any type of ethical violations, it takes them personally. And while it really isn't plagiarism he's guilty of, the perception he appeared to habitually and deceptively coast on warmed-up fare, no less at a magazine for which any serious writer would kill -- but never plagiarize -- to work, has him in the crosshairs of journalists from London to Los Angeles.
Lehrer now needs to balance the collective bile by engaging his peers in active dialogue, discussing challenges and pressures of the job, getting and giving perspective and even helping others avoid succumbing to the temptations of shortcuts under deadline pressure. It's his best chance at quieting -- though probably not silencing -- the noise. Conversely, an ostrich-policy of head-in-sand and avoidance will give his critics clear shots and ongoing reason to sneer and snicker, continuing to flood the blogosphere with commentary that'll keep the doubts alive and a once rising star in suspension.
Everyone Loves a Comeback
Jonah Lehrer's next steps are unknown and will be interesting to watch.
The takeaway for thousands of professionals who are publicly dealing with the fallout of their poor decision-making, particularly of the ethical rather than criminal kind, is clear. Influence the agenda by telling your story in your own thoughtfully chosen words. Communicate open and honestly with emotions in check. Produce your absolute best work. Engage your critics in dialogue. After all, if they’re busy talking TO you, they have less time (and hopefully less motivation) talking ABOUT you.
Thank you for reading and visiting the site. As an added bonus, the Salary.com editorial staff has compiled a recommended reading list regarding this topic. Enjoy:
- Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO
- Career Comeback: 8 Steps to Getting Back on Your Feet
- Career Comeback: Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want
- Comebacks: Powerful Lessons from Leaders Who Endured Setbacks & Recaptured Success on Their Own Terms