Can cheaters repent?




On Saturday, 38-year-old Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan won the gold medal in the men’s Olympic cycling road race. Not everyone was cheering. As one cycling fan commented on twitter, Vinokourov’s win was, “Not good for cycling, sport or “Olympism.’” The reason for this grumbling? “Vino” is a former doper, and an “unrepentant” one by some accounts. In 2007, Vinokourov dropped out of the Tour de France after testing positive for blood doping. When he was caught, he insisted that the test was a mistake and tried to attribute the result to a surplus of blood in his legs. He served a two year ban and returned to the sport in 2009. But he never confessed to doping, and as far as I can tell, has never expressed much remorse.

I was thinking about Vinokourov yesterday when I heard that Jonah Lehrer had resigned from the New Yorker. Lehrer had been a fast-rising star in the science journalism world, and suddenly his secret was out—his unbelievable output was attributable in part to his habit of recycling his own work without attribution (some called it self-plagiarism) and in at least one case, lifting material from another writer. The final straw came yesterday, with news that reporter Michael C. Moynihan had discovered some dubious Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s latest book. When Moynihan questioned Lehrer’s sourcing, he “stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied” to Moynihan.

You might assume that Lehrer’s journalism career is over, but if history is any indication, it’s perhaps just as likely that, like Vinokourov, he’ll return. “As it turns out, not many publications force journalists to pay their debts to their profession and their readers. Often, they don’t even send the bill,” Jack Shafer wrote in 2007 while commenting on the return of Michael Finkel, a confessed fabricator who defended his behavior to New York Magazine by explaining that, “…this was an attempt to reach higher — to make something beautiful, frankly.” (Finkel just so happens to have a feature in this month’s issue of National Geographic.)

So will Lehrer return to his profession like Vinokourov and Finkel did? It’s hard to say. Unlike sport, journalism has no formal sanctioning process. Whereas Vinokourov could serve a formal penalty for cheating (without ever admitting wrong-doing) and then return to his sport, Lehrer’s fate will remain up to the individual judgment of those who might hire him.

Journalism is a profession that relies on trust. Lehrer violated that trust, and he’ll have a long road ahead to gain it back.

Lehrer’s redeemability will depend on the extent of his lies and errors and his willingness to acknowledge them. If Lehrer hopes to repent,  there are several steps he should take. First, he needs to own it. Acknowledge exactly what it is he did and why it’s wrong. His statement to the New York Times, in which he acknowledges lying to Moynihan and using quotes that did not exist, is a good first step.

He should also apologize to the victims of his cheating, and not just his editors and the readers he duped, but also to the journalists who had to strive to reach the bar he’d set ridiculously high. Superhuman output like his reinforces the pressure for all journalists to do more. His behavior is cheating just like Vinokourov’s blood doping—he took short cuts to get the job done better with less effort.

Finally, explain how it happened. The thing about cheating is that it makes you look super human. Show us your humanity. Don’t deny. Don’t excuse. But take us to your decision point. How did you get there? What were the pressures that led you to that turning point? If there were external forces that contributed, expose them, but do it without deflecting responsibility. You’ve got to own your mistakes, and you have to show that you’re willing to pay for them. Unless cheating has consequences, there’s no reason to make rules.

There’s another former cheater competing in cycling events this week in London. His name is David Millar, and when he was caught doping, he eventually confessed and has become an outspoken voice against doping. “I am an ex-doper who is now clean and there is never any point in hiding that,” he said after winning a stage of the Tour de France this year.

Lehrer could take a cue from Millar and go public about why he did it and why he won’t do it again. He could expose the pressures he must have felt to self-promote and to churn out ever more books, magazine articles and blogs. I understand, though, why he might not do that. To admit that authors and journalists today are under extreme pressure to produce more, more, more (often for less money) might make him sound whiney. It might imply that he wasn’t quite as smart and talented as he’d seemed. It might make editors think he wasn’t up to the challenge.

Lehrer was fortunate to achieve great success at an early age, but success brings its own problems. The shinier you become, the more opportunities come your way and the more people ask of you. Remaining successful requires learning to say no. It’s not humanly possible to give 50 talks a year and write your own books and pump out magazine articles every month and new blog posts every day. It’s ok to acknowledge that reality.

I believe in forgiveness and I’m willing to give people a second chance. But second chances must be earned. Jonah Lehrer, it’s up to you.




Jonah Lehrer by C2-MTL via Flickr


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12 thoughts on “Can cheaters repent?

  1. I’m not sure why, but I find myself annoyed – sort of pissed off – that Lehrer would do this. It seemed he had so much natural ability that he didn’t need to cheat. I loved his stuff on Radio Lab. IMO, science journalism as a whole takes a hit in credibility from this. Sad.

  2. Great essay, Christie. I hope he reads it, or at least gets some advice like yours elsewhere.

    I feel similarly to LindaCO and baffled by all the comments I keep seeing about how Jonah Lehrer even before the scandal already had so many “haters” who “had him the crosshairs,” as if this dirt had been dug up just to bring the guy down a peg. Seems to me he made his own bed — and messed with the rest of ours, too.

  3. I have to admit, before I read this, I’d never heard of Lehrer, but I do wonder like the author, how today’s writers manage to have such a phenomenal output. I thought they were just superhuman. The fact that most now also seem to be able to tweet all day as well as writing books, appearing on tv and radio, and all the rest amazes me too. I follow a few on twitter, and it takes me all day just to keep up with reading the links that are posted. ‘Luckily’ I don’t have a job: I certainly couldn’t write a blog and read other peoples at the same time. Under the circumstances, I could understand a little, ‘self plagiarism’, and with all the competing reading matter around it’s amazing that anybody noticed = or cared.

  4. I believe Vink only served a one-year ban, the penalty imposed by his national federation, and the cause of some consternation at the time, as two years was assumed to be the standard.

    I personally don’t understand why Jonah was writing about Dylan in the first place. He should have stuck to science, which keeps many an ambitious man honest.

  5. It seems to me that most of your suggestions are really spot-on for making amends of any kind. I do hope Lehrer comes back.

    Though as a reader I’m very bothered by the trust lost, I must admit it’s hard for me to see this as exactly like doping. There’s no rule you can’t be a science journalist without having ‘superhuman output’. You’re not trying to achieve the exact same things like in a sports competition.
    Still, I gather there aren’t an infinite number of writer positions for the New Yorker, so I can see how someone who was basically ‘in competition’ for jobs would see what he did as ‘unfair’ as well as other sorts of wrong.

    “He should have stuck to science, which keeps many an ambitious man honest.”
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA You’ve never worked in a biomedical research lab, have you?

  6. I found this essay via UPOD.

    The depth of the inveigling involved in Lehrer’s “cut corners,” whatever is to be believed about the motivations, is sure to be used to discuss ethics in J schools for some time to come. (Or maybe only a heartbeat given the pace of today’s news cycles?)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  7. @becca–I agree that journalism isn’t a competitive sport. But there don’t have to be winners and losers or comparative rankings for there to be cheating. After all, people cheat on their taxes, they cheat on their wives, they cheat on exams. None of those are competitive things.

    The thing that makes what Lehrer did cheating is that it violates the rules of journalism. And those are the rules we all agree (or should) to practice by.

    Furthermore, his cheating harmed journalism and journalists by undermining trust in the profession.

    @alan–you’re right that Vino was initially only given a one year ban (by his national federation,much to the chagrin of the UCI and anti-doping bodies) but he ended up sitting out two years for a variety of reasons, and there were efforts underway to impose a longer ban.

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