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